January 24 2018

Saudi Arabia's fabulous online campaign for women to drive has worked

January 24 2018, 01:44 | Van Peters

Screengrab via noisey YouTube

Screengrab via noisey  YouTube

For years they have called for change, and some have been arrested for defying the driving ban.

The issue of women driving has always been divisive, pitting the guardians of Saudi Arabia's strict Islamic lifestyle against those who want a more liberal one.

The woman who brought the issue to the world stage in 2011, Manal Al Sharif, told the Daily Mail Australia that she had to spend nine days in prison, lost her job - and, most importantly, custody of her son.

Some ultraconservative clerics in Saudi Arabia, who wield power and influence in the judiciary and education sectors, had warned against allowing women to drive.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain banned their citizens from visiting the small, wealthy Gulf state after cutting ties with Qatar in June, accusing it of supporting terrorism.

The Saudi government has said Vision 2030, a vast plan of economic and social reforms, will raise women's share of the labor market to 30 percent from 22 percent now. However, the ban will not be lifted immediately as it will take effect next year on July.

At the moment, she teaches in a Saudi university as a professor.

Minister of Culture and Information Awwad Al-Awwad said the decision to allow women to drive is a historic one that comes within the wise vision of Saudi leadership for women to take their proper place and participate in development in accordance with the Shariah regulations. "I look at this as more than driving - I see myself as more of a human today than yesterday", said Salma al-Rashid of the Al Nahda Philanthropic Society for Women.

The kingdom had held out on allowing women to drive, despite a number of social openings and gains for women, including granting women the right to vote and run in elections for the first time in late 2015. Often, police would detain a female driver until a male relative could pick her up and sign a pledge on her behalf that she would not drive again.

Saudi Arabia and Britain are close allies.

Earlier this year King Salman issued an order allowing women to benefit from services such as education and healthcare without the consent of a male guardian. Conservatives have traditionally lashed out in the media, drawing on religious teachings to support their argument that allowing women to drive would lead them toward evil.

Despite the breakthrough that won plaudits internationally and from inside Saudi Arabia, she refused to take any credit, saying: "No, no, it wasn't me, it was everyone doing everything".

Currently, women must rely on hiring men to drive them, often through ride-sharing services like Uber or Careem.

The move to ease some restrictions on women has huge implications for the Saudi economy and women's ability to work. The sharia, the islamic law, which leaves little freedom to the women, there is strictly enforced.

Analysts say that the ruling royal family is likely to tread carefully on removing remaining obstacles to women to avoid a backlash from conservative religious authorities who, for decades, have exercised enormous influence in the home of Islam's holiest sites.

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