Change has come to Saudi Arabia at last. King Salman of Saudi Arabia has decreed that women can drive. Many of us, especially those living in the kingdom and the Gulf, did not expect it to arrive it in our lifetime. But as they say change is the only constant in life and all things must change, sooner or later.
Only those who have ever lived and worked in the kingdom or even been to the country would know what a great deal this is. This is truly historic and epic not just for the Saudi women but for the Kingdom and the Middle East at large.
However, this is not merely about allowing women to get behind the wheel and go mobile. This is about recognising the worth and acknowledging the due of half of the country’s population. This is about restoring to women the dignity and freedom that is not only granted by all societies but also sanctioned by religion.
Indeed, Islam had been the first to grant equal rights to both men and women at a time when women were traded like cattle and girls were killed after birth in the hopelessly patriarchal society of ancient Arabia.
After the dawn of Islam, Arab and Muslim women played their role at every stage of history. Even during the time of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, Muslim women would be seen alongside their men on the battlefront, providing moral support to men, nursing victims and even taking up arms whenever needed.
The Prophet’s first wife Khadija (RA) had been a successful business woman of Makkah. Her trade caravans traversed the far corners of the Middle East and beyond and she used all that wealth to support her husband and his mission in every way possible. His youngest wife Aisha (RA) also took keen interest in the affairs of the community and provided leadership and even offered religious guidance to the faithful after the Prophet’s (pbuh) death whenever needed.
Unfortunately, we turned away from those illustrious traditions and history as we imposed our own selfish obscurantism, tribal customs and misogynist insecurities on our women.
Islam did not curb the rights and freedom of our women. We did it ourselves, limiting the immense promise and potential of our women and undermining our own future. Even today, in many Muslim societies including in India and Pakistan, women’s education is still frowned upon. Girls are killed in the name of so-called honour. Yet we get away again and again by blaming our obscurantism and male chauvinism on our pristine, innocent faith.
We are still not prepared to see that by curbing the basic rights and potential of our girls and our women, we are doing ourselves and our future generations the greatest disservice and harm. For to bring up informed, educated and confident generations of individuals, you need informed, educated and confident mothers. It is as simple as that.
The late Sheikh Zayed Al Nahyan, the visionary architect of the modern UAE, realised it early in his quest to build a modern and forward-looking nation out of a disparate group of seven underdeveloped desert emirates.
He managed to convince his tribal chieftains across the country – with some effort – that unless women were educated and allowed to play an equal part in the building of Emirati society, the young country’s future would remain bleak and uncertain.
Given the tiny Emirati population, he pointed out, it was critical for the Emirati women to join the UAE armed forces and other professions, including challenging traditional male bastions, in order to play an equal and vital role in the nation building. It was because of that vision and those persistent, valiant efforts that Emirati women do not just drive today, but are seen in the driving seat and rub shoulders with their men in virtually all walks of life.
In fact, given women’s natural empathy and dexterity, they prove better workers and do a better job than men in many cases. Today, if the UAE is a shining and inspiring example of a modern, progressive Muslim nation where things move at an incredible and effortless pace, a great deal of credit – at least half of it – goes to its wonderful and enterprising women.
In fact, given the age of this youthful nation and its limited human resources, Emirati women are perhaps far ahead of all Arab and Muslim counterparts in this respect. They are seen juggling many hats from a very young age with great confidence and élan in both public and private sector.
What amazes me no end is the fact that they have accomplished it all while strictly observing the hijab and the norms and traditions of their faith and society.
The same has been largely true of many other Arab and Muslim countries in the region, from Oman, Kuwait, Qatar and Jordan to Iraq, Iran, Turkey and even Pakistan. In the UAE, Turkey, Iran and Pakistan, women have not only been part of the armed forces, they are even flying fighter jets.
In Palestine, women have always been part of the freedom struggle and taking on the occupation. Even in Saudi Arabia, women have been playing their role in various spheres including in business and the media. Somayya Al Jabarti became the country’s first woman editor when she took over as the editor in chief of the English daily, Saudi Gazette, a couple of years ago.
The bold and much awaited decision by King Salman enabling women to take the wheel caps this long and historic journey of their empowerment. This is a red letter day not just for the Arab and Muslim women but for all women everywhere. Perhaps as momentous as the right to vote granted to women in the West, which had incidentally been not very long ago.
This is the beginning of a long and exciting journey not just for the Saudi women but for the country as well. The series of reforms unveiled by the kingdom’s assertive, new leadership as part of the Vision 2030 are not only essential for Saudi Arabia if it is to deal with the emerging economic and geopolitical challenges, they are equally important for the Middle East at large.
As the Middle East’s largest country and economy and the leader of the Arab and Islamic world, the stability and wellbeing of Saudi Arabia in the post-oil age are vital to the whole region and the world.
Change in Saudi Arabia is, therefore, most welcome and augurs well for both the kingdom and the region. However, it should not stop at merely allowing women to drive.
Both the archaic and demeaning concept of male guardianship of women and sponsorship (kafala system) of foreign workers must go; they dehumanise both men and women and have long been abused.
This is the time to encourage Saudi women – and Muslim women everywhere – to unleash their full potential and make a difference to their societies in every way possible. Keeping half of our population from playing its legitimate role and responsibility not only makes no sense, it is a sheer waste of talent and precious human resources. It is time for Saudi Arabia to lead by example in this respect.
The writer is an award-winning journalist.