Women’s movement for freedom in Saudi Arabia

The history of the struggle of the women of Saudi Arabia to drive their own vehicles makes an interesting reading. This victory has not been achieved overnight. In fact, it’s the culmination of a struggle marked by ups and downs, cheers and jeers! While raising the voice of freedom many Saudi women had to face trauma and torture. The ultra-conservative society of Saudi Arabia was in no mood to concede the legitimate demands of the Saudi women. To tell the truth, grant of driving license to women was possible owing to the liberal and progressive attitude of King Salman who has in his mind to usher in a series of social and economic reforms. “Women occupy half of the sky”, goes the saying. There is a growing realisation in every field that unless women are liberated, democracy is a half-way house. Over the years women have been fighting for their rights and demanding equality with men. A gender divide that tends to belittle the importance of women runs counter to the concept of an egalitarian society.

Though women all over the world are fighting for their rights, but the results achieved so far are far from satisfactory. A lip-service to women’s freedom and dignity is seen in every aspect of life. Freedom for women in Islamic countries wedded to religious extremism and conservatism is a matter of serious concern for those who fight for gender equality with emphasis on women’s right to liberty and freedom. Though women’s liberation movements are strong elsewhere across the globe, but in an ultra-conservative society like Saudi Arabia things are very different. Saudi Arabia goes for a segregated society with regard to men and women and on the issue of freedom for women, the society’s norms are very tough and look absolutely anti-women.

For the high priests of the ultraconservative society of Saudi Arabia, grant of freedom to women in every sphere of life could pose a serious threat to the society. Such a mindset is definitely incompatible with the norms of a democratic society and certainly reduces women to slavery. Denial of manwoman equality in Saudi Arabia has prevented women to come to the forefront to play a significant role in the society. In a fast-changing world, such an attitude towards women in Saudi Arabia is an anachronistic phenomenon. An atmosphere that denies freedom to women in the name of religious purity is definitely oppressive. Saudi Arabia, a strong Sunni country has always remained in the news for its segregated society with restrictions on the free movement of women.

There is no denying the fact that for a longtime women activists of this conservative society pleaded with government with regard to women’s rights but Saudi Arabia’s monarchial government did very little with regard to their demands. On the other hand women activists who had been fighting for man-woman equality had been suppressed and harassed by the Saudi government. However, things have started changing recently in Saudi Arabia though a little has been achieved so far with regard to freedom of women. The fallout of the Arab Spring that took place in Muslim countries like Tunisia and Egypt did have an impact on the ultra-conservative society of Saudi Arabia. The Arab Spring galvanised the freedom movement of the Saudi women who came out with a series of demands in their favour. In Saudi Arabia, women had not been allowed to drive their vehicles and when women activists stepped up their movement only recently women had been given driving license. Though considering the liberal atmosphere elsewhere, a demand of this type looks very small, but against the backdrop of Saudi Arabia’s ultraconservative society and the domination of the Sunni religious fanatics, grant of driving license to the women of Saudi Arabia is no less an achievement!! The ban on women driving their cars was first defied on November 6, 1990 by more than 40 Saudi women who drove their cars in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia – a first public demonstration against the ban.

Again in September, 2007 women activists submitted a memorandum containing 1,000 signatures of women requesting lifting of the ban on women driving their own vehicles. The memorandum was submitted to the then King- King Abdullah. In June, 2011, October, 2013, November 2014, September 2017, such movements continued while many women activists were called “terrorists”. In September 2017, the new king Salman came out with a liberal stand and asked “preparations to be made for women to eventually be allowed to drive”. In May-June 2918, many activists were arrested for their anarchical behaviour and they were released later. King Salman said, “When we’re going to grant driving license to women to drive their own vehicles, why should the women activists spread lawlessness?” The truth of the matter was that the liberal-minded King Salman wanted to have a balance between the liberals and the conservatives.

However, his ending the ban on women driving their vehicles was an integral part of his drive for socioeconomic reforms in Saudi Arabia’s ultra-conservative society. The lifting of the ban on women driving their vehicles happens to be King Salman’s positive contribution to transform the Saudi Arabian society. A segregated gender culture that prevents men and women interacting with each other cold be on its way out. King Salman realises that the society needs transformation and discrimination against women meant putting the clock of progress back. In Saudi Arabia, at the moment, there are winds of change for women to play an active role in every sphere of life.

In art, culture and social gatherings, he wants more woman faces. Naturally, good days are ahead for the Saudi Arabia women in terms of freedom and equality. Movement for freedom by women was challenged by the ultraconservative elements of the society but when King Salman himself intervened to defend the cause of women, it was a big paradigm shift. The truth of the matter is that the Islamic World is undergoing sweeping changes with liberals and progressive forces challenging the domination of the conservatives. In Egypt and Tunisia, women have substantial freedom but wherever conservatives gained the upper hand women’s existence was threatened. Religious extremism led by the Islamic State and the Talibans continues to deny women’s freedom, but sooner or later that mindset will collapse. There is no exaggeration in saying that Saudi Arabia has shown the ways for rapid changes.
–(The writer is a former I.A.S. officer)

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