Editor’s Note: Eman Al Nafjan is the author of the Saudiwoman’s Weblog, a blog on Saudi society, culture, women and human rights issues. She is based in the Saudi capital, Riyadh. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
A couple of hours before the news broke that the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia was finally being lifted, rumors had circulated that a decree on a women’s issue was coming.
I suspected it could be about the driving ban, but after years of campaigning to no success, I had nearly lost hope in it ever happening.
For the past few of weeks, friends of mine have been planning parties in Jeddah, Riyadh, and Dammam to commemorate 27 years since the first protest against the ban. Since November 6, 1990, Saudi men and women have paid hefty prices for voicing their opposition to the ban on women driving in our country.
The unnecessary sacrifices of so many people crossed my mind as I read the tweets issued by the Saudi Press Agency announcing that the ban had been lifted.
The manner in which the ban was lifted seemed too simple to be real.
Initially, I was overwhelmed with my own powerlessness as a woman living in a patriarchal absolute monarchy. Were our efforts the reason the ban was lifted? Or was it a decision that had been made regardless of our struggles?
Still, my ringing phone and messages from friends pushed my frustrations aside, and I couldn’t help but get caught up in everyone else’s happiness.
A friend told me how she heard the news while shopping at a mall. She said that complete strangers were informing and congratulating each other.
Within minutes of the news breaking, silly misogynistic jokes about how women drive were being posted all over social media. Most of the jokes were about cars pimped out in pink and purple and about how tow trucks are going to be a sound investment when women start driving. But I was still too happy to be bothered and laughed along with everyone else.
While I am grateful that the government has finally allowed women the choice to drive, it is important to stop and think of all the men and women who have bravely stood against the state driving ban for the past 27 years:
- The 47 women who drove in protest in 1990 and the man who photographed them were all arrested. The women were suspended from their jobs and banned from travel while the man, Saleh Al-Azzaz, was imprisoned for months.
- Mohammed Al Zulfa in 2006 risked – and eventually lost – his lucrative position on the Saudi Majlis al-Shura, an unelected consultative council, after insisting that the ban be lifted.
- 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.
- Maysaa Al Amoudi and Loujain Al Hathloul were charged as terrorists and spent 70 days in prison for using social media to post videos of their attempt to drive across the Saudi-UAE border.
There are so many more names, but there are also so many who remain nameless.
While the practical implications of lifting the ban on women driving are undeniable, they remain outweighed by the repercussions of its symbolism.
How can children consider their mother on the same footing as their father when she is treated as a minor every time the family gets into a car?
How seriously could a teenager take his mother when he has more choice and control than her? Saudi women surgeons were entrusted with other people’s lives in the operation room, but not with their own lives on the road.
Now, with the driving ban lifted, other issues seem conquerable. The biggest issue at the moment is the guardianship system.
Guardianship is a term used to describe the extreme patriarchy of Saudi bureaucracy. In practice, it can be a minor but insulting inconvenience, such as a university’s requirement that female college students obtain a signed permission slip from their male guardian before joining any off-campus activities.
In other cases, it can be as atrocious as being sentenced to months in prison on the indictment of “filial disobedience.”
Over a year ago, an anti-guardianship social media campaign started, organized mainly by female college students and recent graduates. Most of these young activists are either victims of the guardianship system or witnesses to the suffering of friends and relatives.
A breakthrough came when the Royal Court issued an order to all government agencies to create an inventory of all the regulations that limit women and revise them within three months from April 17th.
We have yet to see what will come out of this order. But this week I learned that in my country, life transitions can happen as instantaneously and quietly as a tweet from the Saudi Press Agency.