Saudi Arabia driving ban: A long road to justice

By Melanie Thienard, Co-Chair of the Women's Action Network

 

Sunday 24th June was a historic moment for women in Saudi Arabia. For the first time in the Kingdom’s history, women have been granted the legal right to drive.

Saudi women more than deserved to celebrate their victory yesterday: the end of driving ban is a historic win for women’s rights in the Kingdom. Women’s rights activists have been fighting since the 1990s to get behind the wheel, and many faced jail sentences for defying the ban.

But let’s not be mistaken; whilst the end of the driving ban will undeniably increase the emancipation of Saudi women, the ban was just the tip of the iceberg. Wider reforms will be necessary to achieve anything like equality for women in the Kingdom. 

Winning the battle, losing the war?

What could have been a first step towards the emancipation of Saudi women has however been tainted by the arrest of some of the most prominent Saudi women’s rights activists and campaigners at the outset of the repeal of the driving ban.

Leading activists, including Loujain al-Hathloul, Iman al-Nafjan and Aziza al-Yousef, were arrested in the weeks coming up to yesterday’s policy change, and whilst some of them have been released, nine remain behind bars at point of writing.

Women in Saudi Arabia won a decades-long battle yesterday, but there are many more to be fought. The driving ban, whilst being the most publicised aspect of the discrimination faced by Saudi women, was never the main battle. By the same token, the struggle of the women currently imprisoned is not limited to the end of the driving ban. They are also fighting for gender equality and to abolish the oppressive male guardianship system, which still treats Saudi women as second-class citizens.

What next for women’s rights

Women may now be allowed to drive, but they are still denied agency in some key areas of their lives. Under the male guardianship system, Saudi women must obtain the permission of a male guardian to travel, work, enrol in higher education, or marry. Even after the end of the ban, women and girls in the Kingdom will continue to face discrimination in law and practice, and the regime seems determined to silence anyone who dares to speak against this highly discriminatory system.

The lifting of the driving ban was long overdue, but Saudi Arabia will only allow women’s rights to improve as long as it fits into the new image the Kingdom is trying to build for itself: one of a modern nation, blazing forward.

The ongoing crackdown and smear campaign against women’s rights activists, however, shows that despite being allowed to sit behind the wheel, there is still a long road ahead for Saudi women to achieve justice and equality.

Women in Saudi Arabia – just like their counterparts all over the world – deserve agency, justice and equality. As the news cycle inevitably moves on, it is important that we do not forget them or the struggle they still have to face.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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