Before we get too giddy about King Salman's royal decree that will allow women to drive automobiles, let's admit it's is progress of a sort but not forget that Saudi Arabia remains a repressive regime for women and men.
Not often that I refer you to the trendy New Yorker, but Middle Eastern expert Robin Wright has some interesting thoughts on King Salman's decree. She says it is "a small step forward, not a great one":
There are, however, caveats. The ruling will not go into effect until June, 2018. Women may have to get the permission of their male “guardians” to drive, as they do for many major activities in their life. The biggest issue may be winning the approval of Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi clerics, the most conservative of the Islamic faith. The decree stipulated that new regulations must “apply and adhere to the necessary Sharia standards,” a reference to Islamic law. What that means was left unanswered.
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The new decree established a government body to draw up guidelines for implementing the rule—leaving open the question of what guidelines might be necessary for women that are not also applied to men. “What we’ve seen in the past is more limited proposals: that women can drive if they are going to work, or if they’re going to the supermarket, but no joyriding,” [Middle Eastern specialist Adam] Coogle said. “Other proposals suggested that there would be a curfew for women drivers. We hope this will not be a discriminatory system with different rules for women—and that’s a possibility, given the way the rules have happened in the past.”
Middle East analysts peg the timing of the change to both momentum behind reforms aimed to modernize the country and a growing array of pressures on the monarchy. In 2015, the kingdom allowed women both to run for and to vote in local-council elections. The king is still an absolute ruler, however, and the councils function largely in modest advisory roles at the local level. Women are also a burgeoning social force. The majority of university graduates are now women, but they are a tiny percentage of the labor force.
The Saudis may also be looking for a reprieve. The United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva is expected to vote this week on whether to create a commission of inquiry to document war crimes in Yemen. “This comes at a time when Saudi Arabia is experiencing a lot of domestic turmoil around the succession and a lot of economic problems, in addition to the war in Yemen and tensions with Qatar and Iran,” Coogle told me.
Over the past two years, the kingdom has undergone a major political transition, with the ouster of the well-established Crown Prince, who had successfully quashed most of Al Qaeda in the kingdom. He was replaced by Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the young and largely inexperienced third son of the aging and ailing king. The former Crown Prince was reportedly put under house arrest and banned from travelling abroad. The moves were widely interpreted as carving out a new line of royal succession from the enormous House of Saud—and limiting the prospects for thousands of other royals.
“The major takeaway is a P.R. win when they needed it, when you look at criticisms they have faced recently,” Coogle told me.
A State Department spokesperson called it a “great step in the right direction.” Saudi women, however, still can’t get passports or travel outside the country without the permission of their primary male guardian. (A guardian can be a father, husband, brother, or even a young son.) A Saudi female can also not get a foreign education with government support unless she is accompanied by a male guardian. Driving may be a small step, but it is certainly not a great one.
So, yes, greet this as good news–but guardedly.