CHANGE comes to the desert kingdom slower than the shifting of a sand dune, particularly when it involves women. By that standard, the last few days in Saudi Arabia have been no less than historic — although undoubtedly some of the old guard may prefer to describe them as calamitous. On Saturday, at a musical concert, part of an unprecedented lineup of festivities to celebrate Saudi National Day, women were allowed for the first time into Riyadh’s King Fahd International Stadium as spectators. The weekend extravaganza also saw men and women dancing in the streets, a stunning departure from the strict rules of segregation sometimes enforced on pain of death in the citadel of Wahabism. That has been followed by a royal decree on Tuesday announcing that women will be allowed to drive from June 2018, making the kingdom the last country on earth to permit women behind the wheel.
The unofficial ban on driving is one of the most demeaning restrictions placed on Saudi women. It is about infantalising them, depriving them of agency and making them dependent on men — often unrelated men who are in their employ as drivers, which defeats the absurd morality ‘justification’ — to accomplish the simple tasks that constitute daily life. In a world where women are flying fighter jets, even in Muslim countries such as Pakistan, not to allow them to take the wheel is an anachronism that earned the kingdom international opprobrium. Moreover, it is at odds with the more forward-looking Saudi Arabia that the government is promoting through its Vision 2030 plan. To that end perhaps, there have been some tentative steps to empower women. For instance, they were given the right of franchise in municipal elections in 2015; they were even allowed to stand as candidates, albeit with major caveats. However, while the wheels of change have begun to move surprisingly fast, there is a fair distance to go before women in Saudi Arabia can take even partial control of their journey.