Saudi women's rights activist and best-selling author, Manal al-Sharif, wrote this opinion piece for the Washington Post dated October 5, 2017. A link to the story is here, and the text is pasted below. The world has been waiting for Ms. al-Sharif to speak up about the news that women will be able to get driver's licenses in Saudi Arabia. And she has spoken! Bravo, Manal!
Saudi Arabia is finally freeing itself from the grip of
decades of religious fundamentalism. The key to this change? Car keys.
On Sept. 26, the Saudi government formally announced that it would
lifted the ban on women driving. Saudi writers have compared the
struggle that led to this day to the battle of the royal decree to open
the first government girls’ school in the kingdom. The decree came three
decades after the founding of Saudi Arabia. But this revolutionary
moment is about so much more than driving. It is about changing the very
direction of the country.
Denying women the right to drive has imposed huge costs on Saudi citizens. Up to 1.5 million foreign men must be paid to work as drivers. Many neither speak nor read Arabic, and some of these “drivers” have never driven a car before. A paltry 15 percent of Saudi women work outside their homes,
in part because hiring a private driver can cost between one-third and
two-thirds of a woman’s salary. Saudi men must be responsible for the
transportation of their wives, sisters and mothers. In desperation,
women without access to male drivers have put boys as young as 9 years
old behind the wheel, propped up on pillows to see over the dashboard.
It is no wonder that the kingdom has among the highest traffic fatality rates in the world.
Beyond the social and economic costs, literally forcing
women to remain in the backseat has hobbled Saudi Arabia’s global
progress. It has the world’s second-largest proven oil reserves
but ranks behind Cyprus and Malta on the United Nations Human
Development Index. Now at last we have a path forward: an open Saudi
society for men and women.
Driving is a start. It can
help end the larger oppressive guardianship system, which requires women
to obtain permission from a male relative for the most basic decisions
and activities. (Interestingly, the kingdom has announced that a woman
will not need permission from her guardian to obtain a driver’s
Today, guardianship and control over women are
less about ancient traditions inside the kingdom — after all, the
prophet Muhammad married a successful businesswoman — than about
fundamentalist religious forces enforcing their grip on society. Many of
the current restrictions on women were imposed after the neighboring
Iranian Revolution and the armed seizure of Mecca’s Grand Mosque by
Sunni radicals for two weeks in 1979. Following those events, women
disappeared from Saudi state television and newspapers, coupled with a
huge crackdown on women employment. Fundamentalists also renewed their
calls to end women’s education. But the current generation of Saudi
women has refused to listen. Women now make up more than half of all
Saudi university students — 51.8 percent as of 2015, according to the Ministry of Education.
For the first time, I dare to dream of a different Saudi
Arabia in the coming years. I have 10 wishes for women’s equality in my
country: I wish for a kingdom where the guardianship system ceases to
exist; where at 18 or 21 years of age, women are recognized by law as
adults; where women can study for any college degree that they want,
including the “male-only” degree of engineering; where women can work in
any field they choose; where women who have been jailed do not need a
male guardian’s permission to leave; where it is a crime to marry off a
child; where women are appointed as ambassadors and ministers and heads
of organizations; where Saudi mothers can pass their citizenship on to
their children; where the law protects mothers and children; and where
women can compete as athletes on any playing field.
change is coming. For the first time in the kingdom’s history,
leadership is passing to a younger generation. Saudi Arabia has long
been known for its octogenarian kings, but today the crown prince,
Mohammed bin Salman, is only 32. As he told
The Post’s David Ignatius in April, “I’m young. Seventy percent of our
citizens are young. We don’t want to waste our lives in this whirlpool
that we were in the past 30 years. We want to end this epoch now. We
want, as the Saudi people, to enjoy the coming days, and concentrate on
developing our society and developing ourselves as individuals and
families, while retaining our religion and customs. We will not continue
to be in the post-’79 era. That age is over.”
years ago, I cried on the streets of Saudi Arabia. I cried because after
a doctor’s appointment, I could not find a male driver to take me home.
I had to endure harassment as I walked alone. I had an American
driver’s license and I knew how to drive, but the government would not
allow it. To drive while female was punishable by arrest and jail time.
Indeed, in May 2011, I was arrested and jailed after I drove on Saudi
streets as part of the June 17th movement to protest the ban. Last week,
I cried again, but my tears were tears of joy. In June 2018, seven
years after that protest, Saudi women will be free not only to drive
their own cars but also to be the drivers of their own lives.