While driving home last week, my phone rang. It was a call from my wife. Sensing a domestic urgency, I pulled over to the side of the road and answered the call. The electrified voice on the line and the words just pouring out in a rush from her took some moments to register. The kingdom had finally lifted the ban on women driving. She had just heard it through friends.
It was a monumental decision, no doubt about it. Perhaps the only bit of news that would have eclipsed it would have been if the Israelis had agreed to let the Palestinians have back their rights and homes and accepted peaceful coexistence. And while that conflict remains a pipe dream in the face of current Israeli hostilities, the women in Saudi Arabia have finally triumphed.
For those not familiar with the idiosyncrasies that exist in the desert kingdom, the driving ban has been a source of great concern and conflict in the Saudi social strata, creating deep divisions depending on which way the issue was viewed. The religious right considered the freedom to drive by women as a gateway to sin and immorality. Countless fatwas or edicts had been released by influential critics over the years demonising women who yearned to get behind the wheel, warning of great penance in the hereafter.
They were joined by their followers who protested at every venue, at any move to loosen laws and restrictions concerning women. For years there seemed to be a split personality in the psyche of the country as every step forward was met by two reversing it. The decades of the 80s, 90s of the last century and the early part of this millennium were unquestionably a period where such an atmosphere existed.
When King Abdullah came to the throne in 2005, he began laying down the foundation for a progressive culture, that began by granting women more independence and rights, and one from which we have not strayed since. King Salman took it a step further with several decrees affording women even more freedom of choice and the right over their own self.
Along the way there have been countless of citizens who have fought for and promoted the concept of freedom of choice, the argument being that the decision to drive should be left to the woman herself and not to her husband, father or some cleric in a village.
Public attempts by women to get on the road and drive instantaneously drew the attention of global media but it was all in vain as the government held steadfast in their resolve. Who can forget the 47 women who drove in the city of Riyadh during the Desert Storm era back in the 90s. Brave women who paid a price with many losing their jobs.
In later years as social media took hold in this country, many women resorted to using this medium to protest the ban. Some filmed themselves driving around the city they lived in before being flagged down and arrested. Wajeha Huwaider and Manal Al Sharif, two brave women from the eastern province of the country who went through similar hardship in their struggles were the pioneers in the 21st century.
There were many others who followed including men who joined in to show solidarity with the women but the walls of resistance were impregnable. Just as the presence of the religious police was seen as an immovable object, so were these walls. But King salman’s arrival to the throne soon changed all of that.
“With women allowed more freedom of choice, there can only be one direction for the country [Saudi Arabia] to go and that is up. ”Share on facebookTweet this
The powers of the religious police seen by residents as overbearing and suffocating were drastically trimmed and their roles were diminished. Clerics who maintained a hardline and intolerant stance in their religious fervour were quickly shown the door. Those who did not conform were arrested. The kingdom was in a hurry to join the league of nations and was not going to allow being bound by harsh interpretations of religious teaching. Not much later, and the news of the lifting of the ban broke.
The news is still not fully settled in the minds of many who although joyous about it are yet to believe it. For almost forty years they have been conditioned to accept the status quo of sitting in the back seat, that many of the women just cannot accept that it is finally here … the freedom to choose whether to drive or not.
This singular act- the lifting of the ban- will unquestionably change Saudi society and I am fully confident that it will be towards the better. With women allowed more freedom of choice, there can only be one direction for the country to go and that is up.
It took some western countries more than a hundred years to grant their women similar rights. The Saudis are doing it faster.
Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah. You can follow him on Twitter @talmaeena.