Opinion

Excitement around the lifting of Saudi Arabia's ban on women drivers speaks to some pathetically low standards

There is often a deafening and unacceptable silence when it comes to condemning the abuses that take place in Saudi Arabia in the name of Sharia, or Islamic law. Especially when it comes to women's rights.

For years, Saudi authorities rationalized the ban with bogus religious edicts from their conservative clerics

There is often a deafening and unacceptable silence when it comes to condemning the abuses that take place in Saudi Arabia in the name of Sharia, or Islamic law. Especially when it comes to women's rights. (Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images)

The headline was striking: Saudi government declares it will allow women to drive.

Women in Saudi Arabia are naturally ecstatic. There have been memes galore on social media since the news broke, including one of a shiny white BMW with thick, sultry lashes attached to the headlights. And people should be ecstatic: for a country that has never allowed a woman to travel alone without the consent of a male guardian, this announcement is nothing short of spectacular.

But a few facts got muddled in all of the enthusiasm. Some posts on social media have hailed the decision as a victory for Muslims or the Arab world, when in fact, it is a victory exclusively for Saudi women. The stifling restrictions put on women across the kingdom are not comparable to those faced by women in other large Muslim-majority countries. Women in Egypt and Iran, for instance, not only have the right to drive but are also bus and taxi drivers.

Silence from religious leaders

The news should also be a wake-up call to religious leaders across the Muslim world, because there is often a deafening and unacceptable silence when it comes to condemning the abuses that take place in Saudi Arabia in the name of Sharia, or Islamic law. The excitement around Riyadh's lift of the driving ban really speaks to how low our own standards are when it comes to bridging the gender gap in Muslim countries.

"It is sad that this is even seen as a slight version of progress in 2017," notes Waqar Rizvi, a journalist in Iran. "It's a very dismal judgement on the Muslim world, which was once the centre of moral and scientific progress."

For years, Saudi authorities rationalized their ban on female drivers with bogus religious edicts from their conservative clerics. Earlier this month, one Saudi cleric declared that women "don't deserve to drive because they only have a quarter of a brain." His lecture has since been removed from Youtube.  

To be fair, the first religious fatwa justifying why driving was wrong for women was only issued in 1990, when 47 women drove their cars in Riyadh to protest the ban. The edict, which was issued on order by the Ministry of Interior, declared that women could be led astray if they went out in public unchaperoned by men. (Side note: women in the era of the Prophet Muhammad were permitted to ride their camels alone.)

So what happened to those religious decrees now? Doesn't an overturn of this magnitude warrant a more public critique of the Saudi legal system (which is based, largely, on uncodified principles of Islamic law)?

Issues like the guardianship system (which restricts a woman's ability to make major decisions without the permission of a male), the prohibition on women competing freely in sports and child marriage (there is no minimum age for marriage in Saudi Arabia) — are these not things that religious leaders can and should speak out publicly against?

An economic decision

It would be foolish to believe that there was a true change of heart by the clerics on the issue of women driving. Because the decision to lift the ban was largely economic.

Riyadh has been reeling from falling oil prices since 2014 and posted an account gap of $27.6 billion last year. According to energy consultancy FGE, a ten per cent increase in Saudi driving activity by women would add 60,000 barrels per day to domestic gasoline demand, but would mean that many Saudi families would no longer have to rely on their often foreign-born workers, who tend to send a big chunk of their salaries back home.

"It's not just a social change, it's part of economic reform," Prince Khaled bin Salman, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the U.S. said. "Our leadership believes this is the right time to do this change because in Saudi Arabia, we have a young, dynamic, open society."

Saudi Arabian leaders decide to allow women to drive 1:24

The fact that a direct representative of the Saudi government is now suddenly speaking about the female driving ban in the context of a "social" factor as opposed to a religious one — as he would have done in the past — shouldn't be lost on us. This attempt at revisionist history is loud and clear.

We must not allow occasions like this to pass without thoughtful public critique. This is an opportunity to start acknowledging the gross social inequalities that exist within traditional religious circles, in whatever country they manifest. As exciting as this development might be for Saudi women, it is a sign that we have to raise the barometer of social progress across Muslim countries higher.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Shenaz Kermalli is a freelance writer and journalism instructor at Humber College in Toronto. Her work has been published in The Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, the Ottawa Citizen, CTV News, The Guardian, Al Jazeera English, and Foreign Policy among others.

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