Women Take the Wheel

by Maggie Holmes

As Americans, we have become sadly numbed to most issues we see in the Middle East. So many of us have grown up seeing destruction and violence from war, but forget that women in the Middle East still face extreme discrimination and persecution. Saudi women are finally being recognized as more than just spouses.

Saudi Arabia is ending a longstanding policy, in that it will allow women to drive beginning June 2018. Saudi women have been celebrating this news, as it is a landmark step to women’s rights in this ultra-conservative country. The driving ban has marred the image of Saudi Arabia, and this new policy might change the current reputation of Saudi Arabia for the better.

Saudi Arabia hopes this policy change will boost its national economy by increasing women’s participation in the workforce. For female workers, employing a driver or paying for transportation consumes around a third of a monthly salary.

The first protest against the driving ban occurred in 1990, and despite the risk of being arrested or jailed, women have continued to protest for the right to drive. It’s been 27 years of waiting, but the time has finally come.

Saudi Arabia is ruled according to Shariah law, and state officials and clerics have provided consistent reasoning for the ban over the years. Some reasons included that it was inappropriate for women to drive, and that driving might lead to promiscuity or collapse of the Saudi family.  

The king’s son, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, has created a plan to overhaul the country’s economy and society, and with this change, there has been momentum to change the driving policy. In recent years, women have gained rights in other areas. For example, in 2015, Saudi women were allowed to vote and to run for seats on local councils. While there has been expansion of rights in terms of voting and political participation, there is still some resistance to end the driving ban because families are highly patriarchal.

Saudi Arabia cannot afford to keep the women in the back seat. If a country wants women to be involved in the country’s economy or government, then it starts with giving them the keys and the autonomy to drive themselves.

While Saudi women have been oppressed from driving restrictions, women in the U.S. still suffer from inequality in other ways. Sexism is felt differently for all women based on the intersectionality of feminism. Intersectional feminism relies on understanding women’s issues from a variety of perspectives and backgrounds, not that just of a white middle-upper class woman.

For example, at The University of Alabama, sorority women receive backlash for applying for block seating at football games, even though sororities consist of highly qualified and impressive women, who maintain high GPAs on top of numerous campus involvements. “They took our front row seating,” a classic quote heard from a typical Old Row fraternity guy. Sorry fellas, we didn’t “take” your front row seating, we earned it. We earned something that seems so trivial compared to the lack of rights for Saudi women but as privileged American women, sexism is portrayed differently.

American women aren’t given full opportunity compared to men. And women in the Middle East are miles behind that. Women across the world deserve more. All Women deserve equality. There has been incredible progress of women’s rights, and we’re lucky for that, but there is still work to be done, whether it’s on an international level or in a football stadium.

Maggie Holmes