On Sept. 26, Saudi Arabia overturned laws forbidding women from driving. The New York Times reported that the law will go into effect in June 2018. The impetus for changing the policy came with the rise of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has pushed to overhaul the monarchy’s society. Bin Salman aims to increase female participation in the workforce from 22% to 30% by 2030.
“We have been calling for this, and lobbying for this, and expecting this, any day and any year,” Maha Akeel from the Red Sea port city of Jidda told the LA Times. “This gives women more independence and confidence, and empowers women to know that they can manage their daily life.”
While driving privileges will grant women more freedoms, experts project the move will impact society in more concrete ways too. Not all of them are as rosy as they look.
Lifting the ban shows political motivation
Hala Al-Dosari, a Saudi scholar based at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute, told The Atlantic the new law gives her mixed feelings. Al-Dosari has campaigned for an end to the driving ban and has even driven four or five times in Saudi Arabia. She also advocates on behalf of activists there who can’t speak freely for fear of government retribution.
“I’m happy for women in Saudi Arabia who will not have to suffer from the ban anymore,” she said. “But right now, I’m not happy—because this came at the price of silencing women activists.”
The same day the ban lifted, according to Al-Dosari, women activists who pushed for it received phone calls warning them to stay out of the press.
“I think the government wants to make sure that the only people who will speak are those who are trained to speak for the institutions,” she explained. “They don’t trust these women. They want all the credit to go to the king for making this wonderful decision; it shows how the kingdom is being moved toward modernization. So they removed the activists from the discourse. I wanted the women to be able to celebrate their achievement, but now they can’t comment. It tells you something about the intent behind issuing this kind of decree.”
A-Dosari said the new law indicates a new Saudi Arabian political movement.