It’s Legal for Saudi Women to Drive, but Let’s Not Forget the Jailed Activists

As women put their hands on the wheel for the first time on Sunday, it was a monumental move for the oppressive country, marking the end of their longstanding ban on female drivers.

Image by illustrator Alice Skinner

The change comes as part of the country’s attempt to expand the country’s economy, labelled Vision 2030, which aims to increase women’s participation in the workforce from 22 per cent to 30 per cent. It’s been heavily criticised whether the Saudi crown prince, in fact genuinely cares about women’s rights, or has an underlying economic motive to give women the right to drive. 

But as Saudi women continue to blare music from their cars in celebration, let’s not forget the high-profile activists who have long fought for women’s rights currently in detention. Last month, 17 women’s rights activists, including 28-year-old social media figure Loujain al-Hathloul, university professor Eman al-Nafjan and Aziza al-Yousef, a 60-year-old mother of five were arrested and jailed and branded as “traitors” in Saudi newspapers. 

Journalist and Arab and Muslim issues commentator Mona Eltahaw writes, “Saudi Arabia’s highest authorities apparently want to make it clear that it was not the courageous advocacy of those feminists that led to this moment, when the kingdom is about to finally lift its ban on women driving, but rather the grace of a crown prince engaged in ferocious revisionism. To allow feminists to celebrate what is, in all regards, a victory of their years of activism would nurture the idea that activism works — a truism that authoritarians hate.”

Campaigners on Friday said at least four women’s rights advocates have been released from jail, however, many more remain detained. “We call on Saudi authorities to release all other human rights defenders unconditionally and immediately,” said Samah Hadid, Middle East campaigns director at Amnesty International. “This wave of repression in Saudi Arabia must end. These arrests are completely unjustified.”

Although lifting the ban is, of course, an enormous step in the right direction, Saudi society still has a long way to go before women are treated as equals. As well as keeping women’s rights activists behind bars, the country’s guardianship system, which forces women to seek permission from their male relatives to travel or start their own business, is still in full force. While the Saudi press portrays their Prince as a revolutionist for the country ranked as the seventh most gender-unequal in the world — it’s still difficult to call him a progressive feminist while the country’s female activists remain behind bars.