The right to drive may not seem to be basic in the way that freedom of expression is, until it is taken away. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world in which women are denied the right to drive a car. Manal Al-Sharif was jailed this spring because she drove a car and posted a video of her disobedience on YouTube. The June 17th movement, a planned protest in which Saudi women with international driving licences are being asked simply to drive a car, is thus an illuminating moment of the Arab Spring.
The advance of women will be the proof that the Arab Spring is a true spring. Deficits in women’s rights stand alongside those involving the acquisition of knowledge and political freedoms, in holding back human development throughout the Arab region, according to the United Nations Arab Human Development reports. “The rise of Arab women is an indispensable component of any free, knowledge-based and well-governed society,” a report in that series said.
Saudi women are, in law, treated as if they were children. Important decisions are up to a male legal guardian – a father, a husband or a brother whose permission is needed to work, study, travel or marry. The prohibition against women driving is the most visible symbol (along with the body and head coverings known as abayas they must wear) of the denial of women’s humanity, a denial reminiscent of South African apartheid.
This is oppression, pure and simple, and deserves no defence on religious grounds. An unmarried woman is not permitted to be in the company of a male non-relative – except in a car, with her driver. This may be a compromise that allows women some mobility, but it suggests the foundation of nonsense on which the prohibition is built.
Some tepid reforms have occurred in the past 10 years. Women have been able to open businesses without a guardian’s approval since 2004; they have been able to stay in hotels without a guardian’s approval since 2008. But women lawyers cannot practice law in court. Just 14.4 per cent of Saudi women are in the paid work force.
No country is free unless the women are free, and that includes the freedom to drive a car. The world needs to cry out in defence of women’s basic rights in Saudi Arabia.