Women’s rights advocates rejoiced on Sept. 26 when the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia lifted a ban that has prevented females from driving.
Recently, women across the Middle East and North Africa have celebrated a number of landmark decisions giving women greater freedoms after decades of protests and grassroots advocacy. These efforts paid off in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday when the Kingdom announced that women will be granted the right to drive beginning in June of 2018. Activists like Manal al-Sharif, author of Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening, and Madeha Al Ajroush, who joined 46 other women in a 1990 protest where women drove vehicles in downtown Riyadh, led this charge in campaigns that saw Manal arrested and Madeha fired from her job.
The lifting of the ban is a sign of changing tides in Saudi Arabia. Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman has rolled out a series of diversification plans for Saudi Arabia’s rentier economy that women are integral to. The economic benefit of women’s augmented freedom of movement, as detailed in this Bloomberg article, is an important factor of the Crown Prince’s economic transformation goal. Saudi women, who are increasingly more educated than their male counterparts, may have newfound access to jobs, but the structure and attitudes of workplaces would also have to shift drastically to realize a meaningful fiscal impact in that regard.
There may also be an economic downside. The chauffeur industry in Saudi Arabia predominately consists of foreign-born workers; the implications on their job prospects could be on shaky grounds now. In a country where women rarely interact with men outside of their family, the ruling also brings about questions of how male police officers will interact with female drivers, as well as how women will go about training for and obtaining licenses in male-dominated spheres of society.
The world awaits to see the outcomes of this milestone announcement. However, an incremental change for Saudi women is not inconsequential. This latest, hard-fought freedom dovetails with other recently-bestowed rights for Saudi women, including the right of suffrage and running for public office given in 2015. Freedom of movement is an important component of parity in the long and continued struggle for equal rights.