In the last 5 years equality between the sexes within Saudi Arabia has started progress. Women have been granted the right to vote and have started to take a more prominent role within Government. In 2015 elections, 18 women were elected to municipal councils. Despite, this landmark election there remains a guardianship system that prevents women from doing vital tasks. One of these is denying women the right to drive. It is not technically illegal for women to drive but a deep rooted cultural tradition means it is rare for a guardian to allow a women to drive.
Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that enforces a ‘fatwa’ which forbids women from driving and despite calls by prominent men such as Prince Alwaleed bin Talal for the law to change it does not look like this will happen in the near future. In November the Shura Council, who act as an advisory body to Saudi King Salman, rejected the proposal to reconsider this law and the King’s son has said it would have a “negative influence” on Saudi society. The predominant religion in Saudi is Islam and this is used by many as a reason for why women are not allowed to drive however this seems unsubstantiated. Other conservative Islamic societies such as Iran allow women to drive. There are other reasons that some Saudis use to justify the ban on women driving, such as road safety. While this justification remains problematic, it is not an argument that is based on religion and to blame Islam as a whole for this controversial legislation or on other aspects of women’s rights is simplistic and lazy.
This violation of women’s rights has been highly criticised by the international community including charities such as Equality Now and the Association for the Protection and Defence of Women’s rights. A number of groups have attempted to engage the UN in this issue sighting an infringement on women’s freedom of movement around the kingdom but without the public groundswell from inside and outside of Saudi Arabia these efforts have been largely unsuccessful. The tension that this creates within society excludes women from being fully engaged members of their communities and promotes stereotypes that women should be subservient to men and belong in the home. If women were being denied the right to drive in the Western world, the public outcry would be vast and unanimous. The only way there will be any change in women’s rights laws is through a combination of pressure from the international community, the people of Saudi Arabia and some notable Saudi Arabian figures. It all starts by enough people taking a stand so that women everywhere are given the option to do basic activities without permission, such as driving.