After choosing Scranton, students at random and showing them a map of the Middle East only five out of twenty-five could identify Saudi Arabia. However, all twenty-five could name at least one aspect of Sharia Law. One student mentioned the “guardianship laws” in Saudi Arabia that require women to request permission to leave the house from a man in her family.
Saudi Arabia is a monarchy under Sharia Law. Although many laws are oppressive for women, like the guardianship restrictions, they have made a step toward equality in the last week. A royal decree was made on September 26 abolishing the driving ban for women. As of June 2018, women will be able to procure a driver’s license and drive unaccompanied for the first time since the ban’s inauguration in 1957.
Saudi Arabia is the last country in the world with a ban on women drivers. Some defenses for the law have included that men would be distracted by female drivers, it would lead to promiscuity, destroy the integrity of the household and the overall notion that women lack the intelligence to drive. One cleric went so far as to claim that driving could harm the ovaries.
These reasons have obviously sparked copious amounts of controversy and criticism. To no surprise the women living under this law have been making tremendous efforts through programs, protests and activists being especially over the last twenty years.
In 2014, a woman named Loujain Hathloul was arrested for trying to cross a border from the United Arab Emirates into Saudi Arabia. She was imprisoned for 73 days and became a Rosa Parks of sorts for women throughout the country. In fact, her name became a popular hashtag on twitter.
This is especially important because Saudi Arabia has some of the harshest government media restrictions in the world. This has encouraged the people to turn to Twitter and other social media platforms for controversial movements because they may be ignored by their news sources. King Salman actually uses Twitter as a way to communicate politics with the rest of the world more effectively. Following the trend, the move to eliminate the ban was published on Twitter moments after the royal decree was announced in the country itself.
Lifting a driving-ban may seem trivial at first glance. However, this policy change has major implications for the more than 33 million people who live in Saudi Arabia. First of all, women being on the roads will require a shift in dynamic for the police force and driving schools. Due to the nature of the culture, men often only interact with women in their families. Therefore, police officers and driving instructors must be trained to deal with female drivers.
Women will also have better opportunities in the work force throughout the country. In 2015 it was established that women could vote and run for seats on the kingdom’s local councils. This has sparked an increase in the number of female professionals. However, many women do not work because asking a male family member to drive them or hiring a driver is unrealistic. Hopefully having more women infiltrate the work force will empower others to do the same.
In an interview with a Lebanese student gave the following opinion “People tend to generalize the Middle East as this tyrannical place where women are completely oppressed. In the time I’ve spent in Lebanon I have felt very comfortable. Although their culture is more conservative, I didn’t cover my hair or worry about driving around alone. My aunt owns her own fashion line in Lebanon. I think Saudi Arabia can move toward a culture like that in the foreseeable future.”