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Saudi Arabia has recently lifted the notorious ban on women driving. But, will this actually bring about a change in the state of Saudi women given that the preposterous ‘Male Guardianship Law’ still exists?
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has after decades of protests finally agreed to lift the ban on female driving, but this is only the tip of the iceberg of reforms that Saudi women need. Though it is one step ahead, we also need to take into consideration the spectrum of things that Saudi women are still restricted from, that denies them their basic human rights.
Saudi opening up and letting women drive, only seems like a part of a plan to diversify the economy, in a post-oil world when we look at the many activists who championed for women’s rights still being imprisoned. The legal system lacks transparency and vague reasons are stated for these imprisonments, because of which Saudi women and a few men who believe in gender equality are silenced.
These imprisonments make it clear that the government is merely giving women a few rights and lifting the ban on women driving because it will benefit the government and not because they realize that women’s empowerment is important. By giving women the right to drive Saudi Arabia is trying to create a liberal image of Saudi that will entice foreign investors into the country, save up the remittances paid to expat drivers and increase consumer expenditure, according to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030.
The first and foremost step that Saudi needs to take is work towards abolishing the preposterous ‘Male Guardianship Law’.
The Male Guardianship Law is an archaic practice where every girl/woman has a male guardian, generally the father, husband, brother, uncle or in some cases the son – who makes major decisions of her life for her. Women need the permission of the guardian to apply for a passport, travel outside the country, study abroad on a government scholarship, get married or divorced, undergo certain medical procedures, leave prison and at times even leave the house alone.
Even though certain changes were recently made to loosen the Male Guardianship law women still do not have the right to make important decisions in their own life. This means a woman can’t apply for divorce from an abusive husband without his permission or can’t get married to a man of her choice, can’t study what she wants, can’t go where she pleases or leave prison even after completing the prescribed time in imprisonment if the guardian feel she has brought shame to the family. Women aren’t even allowed to talk to the media about the lifting of the ban on female driving because the government fears social change that is possible through activism.
There are thousands of women who are forced into marriages and abused by their male guardians but most of these cases go unreported because of the existing systems. Even though there is a scope for the removal of a male guardian the procedure is extremely extensive and often doesn’t yield results.
What’s more? In courts, a man’s testimony is worth twice that of a woman’s and daughters are only allowed to inherit half of what their brothers receive. These laws reinforce and protect the patriarchal power systems giving zero scope for women to be in control over their own lives. They completely disregard women’s ability to think for themselves and instead treat them like minors.
This obviously calls for a change in thinking for women to gain equal status. Right now, we can see a kind of glass cliff effect, where women are placed in positions of power during the time of crisis. The post-oil time in Saudi might resemble the post-war in the West, finally giving women the much needed rights. Maybe, they’ll finally see that laws which were written centuries ago befitted a different cultural and societal context and are no longer relevant. Thus, religion would not be used to propagate the inferiority of women, which will in turn enable people to see that there is no need of an app ,that notifies the male guardian when a women goes in and out of the country.
Saudi Arabia has however bypassed the male guardianship law to some extent by giving the right to women to apply for driving license without the permission of a male guardian and the recent amendments in the law give women the right to seek government services without the consent of a guardian.
On the brighter side, Saudi has at least overcome Sheikh Saleh bin Saad al-Lohaidan’s(a judicial adviser to an association of Gulf psychologists) misguiding statements such as “If a woman drives a car, not out of pure necessity, that could have negative physiological impacts as functional and physiological medical studies show that it automatically affects the ovaries and pushes the pelvis upwards. That is why we find those who regularly drive have children with clinical problems of varying degrees.”
The need for the hour is for us to speak up for the rights of the women in Saudi when they are silenced, and hopefully with Vision 2030 there is a 130% increase in women rights as there has been in the case of working women.
I sincerely hope that this proves to be the first step towards shattering the regressive set of norms that are laid out for women in Saudi Arabia and the future looks brighter for them wherein they would not be treated as submissive souls who need permission to have their basic human rights.
Image used is of Manal Al-Sharif (from Wikipedia), one of the brave women who challenged the ban on driving back in 2011.
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