They’ve done it for decades in Muslim cities across the world, with the same banality as walking in the park or crossing the road. But when Saudi women got behind the wheels at the weekend after a long-time ban was lifted, their act stood out as a mini-revolution. It generated widespread international media coverage and high praise for the man credited with giving the permission: Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s crown prince and de facto ruler.
Until June 24, Saudi Arabia was the only country on earth to ban women from driving, justifying it with absurd excuses that had the common feature of suggesting that women were inferior human beings. The right to drive was never at the top of women’s reform agenda — there are other, more pressing, discriminatory practices to do away with. But the ban had become a nagging symbol of women’s oppression and the kingdom’s backwardness.
For Saudi women, the benefit of driving is obvious and long overdue. Mobility is a basic freedom. More of them can now join the jobs market (women’s participation in the workforce stands at 22 per cent); many households will save on the cost of drivers.
The benefit for Prince Mohammed may also be momentous. The media images of women driving did more to boost his credentials as a reformer than the yearly fortune Saudi Arabia’s government spends on public relations.
Those images encapsulate the social upheaval under way in the world’s most religiously conservative nation. Many of the women now driving no longer cover their faces, another novelty in Saudi Arabia. Soon, some could be working for ride-hailing companies and taking customers to newly-opened cinemas, another first, and to music concerts that were also until recently taboo.
But the events surrounding the lifting of the ban also illustrate the controlled environment in which social change is being engineered. Not all Saudi women will be driving, especially not Loujain Alhathloul, the young activist who struggled and paid dearly for that right.
Weeks before the ban was lifted, she was arrested, along with other campaigners who had defied the authorities in the past by daring to drive. Ms Alhathloul is said to be accused of the vague charge of consorting with “enemies overseas”. When two other women expressed support for the detained, they too were rounded up.
The arrests carried several messages. One was that there could be only one hero in Saudi Arabia — Prince Mohammed; another was that civil society had no role in the kingdom’s social transformation. Women are free to drive but not to express themselves or make demands.
As a series of other arrests over the past year — businessmen, writers, clerics and activists — has underlined, the pace and nature of change will be dictated from the top. With every move towards modernisation, there will be those who benefit, and those who will be sacrificed.
The history of extremism in the Middle East shows that religious ideology and political repression radicalise youth. Saudi Arabia is addressing one factor, and exacerbating the other.
Much of the outside world, however, is ignoring the repression. Criticism of the crown prince has been muted: surrendering civil society for the greater objective of ridding Saudi Arabia of the heavy hand of the clerical establishment is considered a price worth paying. What matters most to Saudi allies is that the cradle of Islam and the world’s largest oil exporter turns decisively against the spread of intolerant ideology.
For women, meanwhile, driving is only the beginning of the road to empowerment. More important, for example, is the abolition of guardianship laws under which women require male guardians (husbands or even sons) for travel, higher education, marriage and much more. Ms Alhathloul and others had been raising awareness about these laws before their arrest.
Guardianship requirements for government services has already been loosened. When other discriminatory restrictions go will be up to Prince Mohammed — and no one else, certainly not Saudi women.