After years of being banished from the road, Saudi Arabia has officially lifted the ban on Saudi women driving.
The government announced plans to change the law in September and has recently been issuing driving licences to a number of women in preparation for the change, which became official yesterday.
According to the Financial Times, shortly after the ban was reversed, billboards with the message “we are all your brothers” lined the streets, as women took to the roads. Addana al-Hugail, a 29-year-old investment-bank worker who spoke to the Financial Times, said, “I’m really excited. The past two years were hard… having only one driver is a problem because I have to plan my whole day with the family around the driver’s availability.”
But women’s rights campaigners who took the law to task, prior to the ban, still remain in police custody. As recently as last month, around 12 activists were arrested over their “contact with foreign entities with the aim of undermining the country’s stability and social fabric”. A number of human-rights organisations have dismissed the reasoning behind the arrests as nothing more than a scare tactic against women’s rights campaigners.
Whether the changes, one of which includes a plan to increase the number of working women in the country to 30%, up from 22%, will dramatically improve conditions for Saudi women still remains to be seen
In an article in response to the arrests, Amnesty International’s Middle East director of campaigns, Samah Hadid, called for the immediate release of “all activists still being detained solely for their human rights work”. She added: “This chilling smear campaign is an extremely worrying development for women human-rights defenders and activists in Saudi Arabia. Such blatant intimidation tactics are entirely unjustifiable.”
The recent driving-ban lift comes as part of a longer list of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s new social reforms, tied to Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 economic plan, which many have interpreted as an attempt to shift the international community’s impression of the often socially restrictive country, thus leading to better trade deals, among other perks. Whether or not the new changes, one of which includes a plan to increase the number of working women in the country to 30%, up from 22%, will dramatically improve conditions for Saudi women still remains to be seen.
While relaxing driving laws will likely help a large number of women in the country, continuing to punish dissent, while bringing in laws activists have worked for years to bring into fruition, may well overshadow Mohammed Bin Salman’s vision.