The Saudi regime has been subject to profound political change; to scrutiny and condemnation from the rest of the world since the longest time, for its harsh policies and more specifically its gender discrimination. It doesn’t come as a surprise that Saudi Arabia has the largest gender imbalance in labour force participation among all of the G20 countries. Only 1.9 million from among its 13.1 million women participate in the workforce, which means a labour participation rate of 20.2% as compared with 77.8% for men, according to G20 Labour Market Report 2016.
So on September 26, when a ground changing law was passed by Saudi Arabia granting its female citizens the right to drive, reversing a decades’ long prohibition, it was met with an overwhelming and jubilant response on social media. #SaudiWomenCanDrive started trending on twitter and social media was flooded with joyous posts celebrating this historical moment. It was really high time that women were granted such a basic right and it came as a massive victory for the Saudi women.
Adult women in Saudi Arabia are forced to obtain permission from a male guardian – be it a husband, a father or any other male relative to travel, marry, or exit the prison, they call home. They are also required to provide guardian consent in order to work or access healthcare. In the absence of a male relative, women face a lot of problems in doing transactions like filling out a form for an apartment or filing legal claims.
Allowing women to drive is the one of the latest changes that have been brought about in Saudi Arabia with an ambitious plan to transform the economy by 2030 and, in line with that goal, increase the number of women in the workforce over the next 15 years. This decree will create a large number of jobs for women, especially in the retail sector and the transportation costs will fall.
This is definitely a victory and a step forward in the direction of empowering women, but sadly, it isn’t a democratic reform, nor does it show a change of mindset. Even though from June 2018, women will be allowed to drive without their male guardian, the conservative mindsets haven’t changed. This royal decree comes after great amount of protesting and arrests. The government had to pass the order under the pressure of the people and under the fear of ruining international relations. In such a grim scenario, one can fathom the implementation of this decree. It would be there on paper, but the control of the male guardian would not lessen, nor would the woman be able to go out of her ‘prison’ without taking consent of her ‘guardian.’
I agree that in a society as conservative as an Islamic country, this decision is a big deal, yet how can any law change the society until its very people refuse to accept reform. Law is undoubtedly the stepping stone, but any law will work its true essence only when it applies on people who would embrace change and welcome change in their own thoughts.
About the Author:
Aryan Wadehra (BDS, PU Campus)