Despite a royal decree declaring women will finally be allowed to drive cars in Saudi Arabia, many fear they will still be prevented from getting behind the wheel.
The ban on women drivers will be lifted in June 2018, but in a nation where male ‘guardians’ have authority to make most decisions on behalf of their wives, sisters and daughters, many fear it will take much longer than that before it becomes reality.
Some Saudi women say they will struggle to convince husbands and fathers to allow them to even obtain a licence, or that male instructors could fail them on purpose.
Slow progress: The ban on women drivers will be lifted in June 2018, but many fear male relatives will not allow their wives and daughters to get a licence
Women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to have any interaction a man who she is not related to without permission from a male guardian.
The government is already moving to bring female driving instructors from abroad and establish driving schools exclusively for women, but this has done nothing to sway some men in the country.
‘You can revoke the ban, but you cannot force men to allow their sisters and wives to drive,’ said a Saudi man with a private taxi company in Riyadh, declining to be named.
‘As head of my family, I make the decisions – not the women,’ he told AFP, expressing an aversion to his wife driving as that would mean more contact with unrelated men.
Such views are hardly an anomaly in the gender-segregated kingdom, despite Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s stunning reform push that has sought to liberalise the kingdom and add more women to the workforce.
Saudi women are not allowed to have any interaction a man who she is not related to without permission from a male guardian
‘Expect more accidents’ because of women drivers, remarked one Saudi, echoing an avalanche of sexist comments on Twitter.
Saudi authorities last week arrested a man who threatened a violent backlash against any female driver whose car breaks down.
‘I swear to God, I will burn her and her car,’ the man, wearing a traditional white robe, said in an online video.
For decades, hardliners cited austere Islamic interpretations to justify the ban on women, with some maintaining that they lacked the intelligence to drive and allowing them to do so would promote promiscuity.
And authorities are careful not to antagonise the sensitivities of hardline clerics.
The Council of Senior Scholars, the kingdom’s highest religious body that is close to the royal family, announced the majority of its members found that lifting the ban was ‘permissible’.
Experts say their approval – after decades of opposition – symbolises the government’s tightening grip on the religious establishment that has long dominated Saudi politics.
Changes: The Saudi government is already moving to bring female driving instructors from abroad and establish driving schools exclusively for women
‘It’s unlikely that the scholars who consistently maintained that driving would damage ovaries, deprive (women) of their virginity and integrity had a sudden epiphany that their decades-old beliefs were wrong,’ said James Dorsey from Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
When the ban was lifted, several women’s rights activists who long fought it alleged that authorities warned them not to make any public comments – seemingly not to highlight that activism can lead to reform.
The government denies the claim.
Ali Shihabi, from the Washington-based think tank Arab Foundation, said on Twitter that the government did not want activists to ‘further provoke the conservatives who were already provoked by (the) driving decision’.
The decision was led by Prince Mohammed, who styles himself as a reformer who will set the country on the road to modernity and civil liberty.
But some experts have called the decision pure tokenism until the kingdom dismantles its rigid guardianship system.
‘Women still face a number of other hurdles,’ said research firm Capital Economics.
‘It may take many years for Saudi society to fully accept a greater role for women.’
A Saudi executive at a multinational company in Riyadh said the main obstacle remains a prevailing ‘village mentality’, although some patriarchs prefer having women drive themselves than be chauffeured around by unrelated men.
‘Women drivers will become a new normal and then people will say: ‘How come we didn’t allow this to happen sooner?”