RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Saudi Arabian women live by the rules of the guardianship system. Under this system, Saudi women are required to have a male guardian at all times. If a Saudi woman wants to work, travel or obtain medical treatment, she must first seek permission from her guardian. A guardian can be the woman’s father, spouse, brother or son. These guardians have the right to make decisions on the woman’s behalf indefinitely. All Saudi women are affected by the guardianship system regardless of social status.
Many Saudi women have spoken in opposition to this system in interviews. A 25-year-old woman named Zahra stated to Human Rights Watch that Saudi women “have to live in the borders of the boxes our dads or husbands draw for us.”
Under the authority of guardianship, Saudi women are prohibited from numerous activities which women in other cultures may consider necessities. For example, Saudi women are not allowed to interact with men, compete in sports, try on clothes in dressing rooms and more. One restriction, which has hindered women and the Saudi economy, is the ban on driving.
In Saudi Arabia, women are not allowed to drive. While there is no official legislation for the ban, its prohibition is upheld by religious protection. Saudi clerics believe female drivers can “undermine social values” and open the door to marital affairs.
Over the years campaigns such as #Women2Drive and #IWillDriveMyCarJune15 have raised awareness via social media and encouraged women to challenge the ban. A growing movement is looking toward societal reform for women, and this could be aided by Saudi Arabia’s goals for 2030 to introduce a sales tax, reduce subsidies on energy and water, cut top government salaries and borrow billions to balance its books.
According to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a key part of this transformation is to increase women’s visibility in the workforce from 22 percent to 30 percent. Statistics show Saudi Arabia is suffering from a labor shortage, and foreign workers do jobs that Saudi women are capable of doing. In order for women’s participation in the workforce to increase, women need to be mobile, so the driving ban is counterproductive.
On November 30, 2016, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal wrote on Twitter: “It’s time for women to drive.” His tweet was accompanied by a message highlighting the economic benefits of allowing women to drive. The ban on women driving affects many families because the husband has to leave work to drive his wife to appointments. If the husband is unable to do this, they must pay for a taxi. Families can hire personal drivers, but they must provide housing and the appropriate visa documentation.
With unreliable public transport, Saudi Arabia continuously employs foreigners to transport women. It is estimated that foreign drivers are paid 3,800 riyals on average, equivalent to $1,000 a month, to transport women to their various activities. These costs have taken a toll on capital outflows and household budgets, and most of this money could be saved if women were able to drive themselves.
By allowing women to drive, Saudi Arabia will advance women’s rights, stabilize the job market and reduce excess household spending. This past year women were granted the right to vote for the first time, and things are looking up for Saudi Arabia. With the help of global awareness, public dissent and high-level advocacy, Saudi Arabia can continue to modernize and its women can pursue greater independence and prosperity.
– Needum Lekia