Wednesday, September 27, 2017 at 7:08 AM

Saudi Women Granted Right to Drive. Hooray…?

Posted by Anthony L. Hall

Yes, this is cause for celebration. Saudi Arabia was the only country still denying women this basic human right.

Granted, women there are still living in a time warp. But they are getting their panoply of civil rights with more “deliberate speed” than women, to say nothing of blacks, in America got theirs.

Saudi Arabia has allowed women into the national stadium for the first time as it launched celebrations to mark the 87th anniversary of its founding with an unprecedented array of concerts and performances. …

However, in a country that adheres to the austere Wahhabi brand of Sunni Islam, which bans gender mixing, concerts and cinemas, the plan’s seemingly anodyne goals to empower women, promote sports and invest in entertainment have been criticised.

Saudi rulers are also starting to reform areas once the exclusive domain of the clergy, such as education and the law, and have promoted elements of national identity that have no religious component, or pre-date Islam.

(Guardian, September 23, 2017)

I first commented on the imperial pace of this civil rights movement in “Saudi Women Granted Voting Rights,” September 27, 2011. The following excerpt puts this latest milestone into perspective.


King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia issued a decree on Sunday granting women the right to vote and run in local elections. He also announced that, for the first time, women will be appointed to the Majlis Al-Shura, the kingdom’s de-facto (rubber-stamp) parliament.

But Western pundits, across the political spectrum, are scoffing. They note, quite fairly, that women still do not have the basic right to drive or travel without the permission of a male guardian.

To be sure, this decree will have about as much impact on the religious (sharia) strictures that subjugate Saudi women as the drop of a pebble in the Red Sea. But that’s the point.

For I submit that it actually represents as much of a tipping point in the struggle for civil rights for women in Saudi Arabia as the Voting Rights Act of 1965 represented for blacks in America.

Obviously, it’s all too belated and far too circumscribed. But when blacks got the right to vote it was even more belated and circumscribed. Indeed, for many years, Jim Crow laws made it virtually impossible for them to exercise that right.

Of course, any criticism of Saudi Arabia must be viewed through the prism of the crack-like dependency Western democracies have on its oil exports: It was feasible to mount an international boycott against the Apartheid regime of South Africa because it had nothing Westerners needed. It is not feasible to do so against the kingdom of Saudi Arabia because it has the fuel Westerners depend on to fuel their privileged lifestyles.

This is why, despite the high-minded criticisms of Western pundits, Western governments will welcome and abide every baby step Saudi Arabia takes on the path towards democracy. …

Abdullah’s only concern is striking the right balance between managing his people’s growing hunger for democratic freedoms and staying true to the religious dictates of his kingdom’s (Wahhabist) interpretation of Islam. After all, in far too many cases, these dictates preclude those freedoms.


It is in this context that I celebrate this latest decree:

Saudi Arabia announced on Tuesday that it would allow women to drive, ending a longstanding policy that has become a global symbol of the oppression of women in the ultraconservative kingdom. …

The momentum to change the policy picked up in recent years with the rise of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the king’s 32-year-old son, who has laid out a far-reaching plan to overhaul the kingdom’s economy and society. …

[A]t the Saudi embassy in Washington on Tuesday, an exuberant Prince Khalid bin Salman, the Saudi ambassador, said women would be able to obtain driver’s licenses without having to ask permission of their husbands, fathers or any male guardian — despite so-called ‘guardianship’ laws that give men power over their female relatives.

(New York Times, September 26, 2017)

Again, I cannot overstate the fact that women had no right to vote and blacks were still enslaved when the United States marked the 87th anniversary of its founding. (Of course, at that time, driving itself was still just a figment of the imagination of inventors like Karl Benz.)

Surprisingly, as I write this, President Trump has yet to claim credit for the king issuing this decree so soon after his state visit. But when he does, he’s bound to juxtapose the fact that it did not happen after former President Obama’s. Never mind events that caused me to write “Blockading Qatar: Trump Makes Middle East Even Messier,” July 13, 2017.

But I suppose Trump is too busy claiming credit for providing humanitarian relief for the millions of Puerto Ricans Hurricane Irma devastated. He couldn’t care less that those Puerto Ricans are all over TV still begging for that relief.

Yes, he really is that predacious, capricious, ungracious, mendacious, and, well, congenitally atrocious.

Related commentaries:
Saudi women voting rights
Trump makes Middle East messier

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