The King Hands Over the Car Keys

How Saudi women finally grabbed the wheel from the country's religious conservatives.

A Saudi woman drives her car along a street in the Saudi coastal city of Jeddah, on September 27, 2017. 
Saudi Arabia will allow women to drive from next June, state media said on September 26, 2017 in a historic decision that makes the Gulf kingdom the last country in the world to permit women behind the wheel.  / AFP PHOTO / REEM BAESHEN        (Photo credit should read REEM BAESHEN/AFP/Getty Images)
A Saudi woman drives her car along a street in the Saudi coastal city of Jeddah, on September 27, 2017. Saudi Arabia will allow women to drive from next June, state media said on September 26, 2017 in a historic decision that makes the Gulf kingdom the last country in the world to permit women behind the wheel. / AFP PHOTO / REEM BAESHEN (Photo credit should read REEM BAESHEN/AFP/Getty Images)

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — It was a seemingly innocuous event as far as political protests go. On the afternoon of Nov. 6, 1990, a group of 47 women drove through the main avenues of Riyadh. At 3 p.m., they crammed into 15 cars, having borrowed the keys — or surreptitiously slipped them away — from their drivers for the afternoon. Many of the women had studied in the United States and already knew how to drive. They expected a minor rebuke from their action but nothing that would outlast the sunset.

Those first moments behind the wheel felt like ecstasy. “At first, no one noticed us,” one of the drivers, Noura al-Souwayan, recently recalled. But soon the police began to stop the vehicles, one by one, pulling the ladies out. Forty-seven women were ushered to a police station — in part to protect them from the wrath of the religious police who would have liked to interrogate them instead. Souwayan stayed until 3 a.m. answering the same questions again and again: “Why did you come? Why were you driving?”

As of Tuesday, that question is no longer relevant. In a royal decree, Saudi King Salman promised to begin granting driver’s licenses to women beginning in June 2018. In the meantime, he established a high-level committee of various ministries to work out the many outstanding details. Some analysts are already wondering what rules will accompany the rollout — age restrictions, for example, or selective times of day for driving.

But it will be impossible to place restrictions on enthusiasm among Saudi women. Conversations with women across the kingdom on Wednesday revealed a mix of disbelief and euphoria rarely matched in their lifetimes.

“Saudi women are very happy,” said Hanan Alnufaie, a young Saudi professional who spoke by telephone. “Women will be much more independent.”

Saudi women celebrating the decision aren’t just thrilled about the possibility of sitting behind the wheel but of what this signals about how the political winds in Saudi Arabia have changed.

For decades, driving had been at the center of a constantly tilting pendulum that sometimes favored conservatives, sometimes modernizers. Allowing women to drive is the clearest possible signal that the modernizers are winning.

Advocates like Souwayan paid a high price for the change, which was decades in coming. In the days after their initial campaign, many of the 47 women involved lost their jobs. The ladies’ names — as well as their husbands’ names and addresses — circulated in fliers and pamphlets denouncing their public act. Some were later detained by the religious police, who doled out penalties including lashings and signed confessions.

Ultimately, however, the change came not from a grassroots campaign but rather from the government itself, and many analysts say that’s crucial. The decree reveals the key method for securing social change in the kingdom: The government must be given space to consolidate a shift in public opinion. And once the royal word has been spoken, dissent is usually muted, even from religious conservatives — both those in powerful institutions and everyday Saudi citizens — who might otherwise be hostile to any weakening of orthodoxy.

“It’s important that this has come from up down, not down up,” said Selwa al-Hazzaa, one of the first Saudi women to be appointed to the country’s advisory parliament, the Shura Council. Importantly, senior clerics are already on board: Tuesday’s royal decree noted that a majority of the Council of Senior Scholars affirmed that allowing women to drive does not contradict Islam.

“Yes, there’s going to be pockets of resistance,” Hazzaa said, “but we’ll put up with it.”

* * *

The Saudi government has long argued that it is more progressive than the society it governs; slow change is a calculation to avoid unnecessary turbulence in a traditional kingdom. At many points in modern Saudi history, that has been true. Religious conservatives have seen their influence surge at specific moments — for example, after the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 or when U.S. troops were stationed on Saudi soil to liberate Kuwait in 1990.

But a host of factors rewrote that dynamic in the last decade. Counterterrorism measures after 9/11 silenced the most extreme voices and struck their lessons from school curriculum. More and more Saudis studied abroad — or simply visited fast-modernizing neighbors in Dubai, where genders, religions, and nationalities mixed freely.

Technology offered the final push. Twitter, often called the “Saudi parliament” by its users in the country, offered an unfiltered platform of information that could be read outside the watchful eyes of religious authorities. Liberals, conservatives, and Saudis of every persuasion found an unedited conversation to participate in. Conservatives, accustomed to being the loudest voices in the room, were suddenly easy to tune out.

“A hypothetical litmus test is: What is stopping the government from opening a Western-style beach in Jeddah? The answer throughout the ’80s and ’90s was that it would be met with strong resistance by an organized nonstate religious current that acted as a buffer between the government and the population,” said Mohammed Khalid Alyahya, a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. “Today, that buffer no longer exists. Change will come as a result of government will intersecting with the sensibilities of society. Of ordinary Saudis.”

In the lead-up to the driving decision, the Saudi government rolled out a series of steps serving as “proof of concept” that most sectors of society would readily accept more change. Appointing women to the Shura Council in 2013 was the initial push, followed by an enormous opening-up of the labor market to allow women to take jobs in retail, law, administration, and a host of other sectors.

Even more important signals have come since the recently elevated crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, began to consolidate the reins of power. Saudi ministries received a binding circular in May requiring them to allow Saudi women access to public services without the approval of a male guardian. After years of requiring a father, husband, brother, or even son to sign off, women could complete basic tasks like opening a business, applying for a government job, or getting a medical appointment on their own.

The recent arrest of up to 30 clerics fits into this assertion of social equality over more conservative forces in the kingdom. “The new crown prince … wants to make it very clear who’s boss. He does not want to be constrained by clerics like his predecessors,” said Jane Kinninmont, the deputy head of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House.

Just last weekend, the annual Saudi National Day celebration offered one final test case. Women were for the first time allowed into a Riyadh stadium to mark the day’s events, seated in a section specifically for families. On the streets in the evening, impromptu rallies and celebrations erupted to the tune of techno music, with young Saudi men and women mixing by necessity on crowded sidewalks. Aside from some verbal skirmishes on Twitter, the country reacted mostly with a collective shrug.

The 9-month window between the driving decree and its implementation now offers a window for, as Hazzaa put it, “society to get used to it.”

“My guess is that despite all the years of talking up the opposition to women driving, the change will probably go through with little significant resistance, now that the government has put its weight behind it,” Kinninmont said.

* * *

The minority of senior religious scholars who rejected the decision on women’s driving cited no objection to the act itself but rather to an ancillary sin — what it could lead to. That question is now one that will now hang over society until women are able to get on the road next June.

Driving holds the promise of multiple layers of liberation for Saudi women, who are legally treated as minors in the kingdom and until now have been forced to rely on a relative, taxi, or paid driver to take them where they need to go. Young women like Alnufaie hope being able to drive will mean women are “given more space” from the strict guardianship rules that govern family life. Today, women still study, work, travel, and marry only with the permission of their male guardians.

A lack of transportation is also one of the major obstacles to employment for women, particularly those most in need of work. Retail shops are brimming with female employees’ horror stories about surviving the daily commute: spending three hours a day in a shared taxi, relying on an unreliable or even abusive relative, or simply having to give up and skip work sometimes. Paying a driver, the most common solution, can consume as much as half of the average monthly retail salary.

“There is no public transportation that you can say is OK, and Uber is too expensive, so there is no other choice” but to let women drive, Hazzaa said.

Driving is likely to cut costs for many families. Women can let go of their mostly South Asian expatriate drivers or stop paying for Ubers. They may soon become taxi drivers themselves, allowing even those who can’t afford cars to preempt family objections against their jumping in a taxi with a strange man.

By these economic analyses, letting women drive was no longer a choice but rather a necessity. Mohammed bin Salman’s dramatic plans to pivot the economy away from oil and toward services would likely prove impossible if half the labor force — including the majority of university graduates — sat at home. “What you’re doing is giving them more of a role in the Saudi economy,” Hazzaa said.

In the coming months, Saudi authorities will wrestle with the thorny practical details about how to implement the decree. Leading up to the announcement, many analysts suggested that driving would come in a stage-managed rollout, for example with older women driving first and only during certain daytime hours. Yet others now believe that, with the hardest decision behind it, the government can proceed uninhibited.

* * *

Twitter aside, the pockets of resistance to this and other social change will likely be as hushed as Wadad, a soft-spoken mother of four and retired civil servant who recently sat down for coffee in Riyadh. Two years ago, she resigned her government job and began a diploma in Quranic studies at a local Islamic center. Since then, she has worked to persuade other women to do the same.

“Women driving is the biggest fitna [sedition] in Islam,” she said, speaking in May. “There are so many problems.”

For women like Wadad, the question of where driving leads holds a different answer than seems obvious to many outside the kingdom — not toward progress or development but rather toward the end of something precious. Saudi culture and tradition are wrapped in a powerful mythology about the roles of men and women. She looks around at fellow female customers in the mall and shakes her head, wishing they all covered themselves with a full face veil, as she does.

What if a woman is driving in the middle of nowhere, and suddenly the car breaks down? Whoever comes to fix it could harass her, Wadad fears. She argues that women always traveled with men at the time when the Prophet Mohammed lived. Today, the solution simply takes another form. “God is so merciful and compassionate, and now we have Uber. Women say they cannot afford a driver, so then how can you afford a car?”

Today’s kingdom is tilting away from women like Wadad, something that she is acutely aware of. Still, the new decree leaves room for conservatives to hold on to their own status quo. Many male guardians are unlikely to let their wives and daughters behind the wheel.

Wadad wonders if the pendulum will swing back or if this shift toward modernity is permanent. She looks at her daughter, who covers her hair — but not her face — with a veil. “Saudi girls and guys now,” Wadad said, “are more open-minded.”

Photo credit: REEM BAESHEN/AFP/Getty Images

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