Women are still not in the driving seat in Saudi Arabia

Allowing Saudi Arabian women to drive is really just a public relations stunt to appease the west. Both women and men need to push for their rights.

The ending of the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia is celebrated across the globe as a major royal gift to the women in the kingdom. Following King Salman’s decree, women will no longer need permission from a legal guardian to get a licence and will not need a guardian in the car when they drive. While many women will no doubt benefit from driving to work and taking children to school, the decision must be assessed in the context of an absolute monarchy championing women’s causes while only last week it detained more than 30 professionals, clerics, and activists for no reason other than to spread terror and intimidate.

Although freedom of movement is a universal right, Saudi women are still constrained. They cannot marry, work, study, travel or seek healthcare without the consent of their male guardians.

A Saudi woman cannot marry a foreigner without the consent of the interior ministry. She can never pass her nationality to her children, who need a visa to enter the kingdom. When a woman is abused by family members, she cannot rely on the government to seek justice, as official agencies hesitate to interfere in “family matters”. When they do, it is often on the side of the abusers.

In the last year, Saudi embassies abroad worked to return girls defined as “runaways”. These are abused girls who leave without the consent of their guardian. In Istanbul and Manila, authorities cooperated with Saudi agents who kidnapped so-called runaways and returned them to Saudi Arabia, where they faced detention. They cannot be freed until their guardian turns up to sign their release documents. Her guardian may have also been her abuser.

The Saudi state is one of the most male-dominated in the world. Now it is compelled to look as if it is treating women better to win over critics in the west. As a result, it has embarked on a series of cosmetic reforms. Increasing women’s employment is part of that package. Recently, women have been allowed to work as cashiers in supermarkets or as cooks. But there are also plans to appoint them to high-ranking positions. Yet we know from other countries that when such appointments have been made without serious political change, women have found it doesn’t lead to their empowerment. Women can never become equal citizens without real democratisation, but none of the Saudi reforms offer this.

History is littered with dictators who have promoted women, from Turkey’s Atatürk, the Iranian shah, Habib Bourguiba of Tunisia, and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. Appearing to support women has won dictators applause, especially in the west, where women’s rights have become an axis against which to measure nations and evaluate regimes.

Today’s authoritarian regimes will win extra praise when they appear to be liberating Muslim women from the oppression of Islam. Saudi Arabia is no exception. Here, Muslim women are depicted either as survivors of their patriarchal religion or as heroes who are challenging such a dominant and primitive culture. Like their counterparts in Afghanistan, Egypt, Pakistan and elsewhere, Saudi women had been framed in this binary image. Dictators conveniently depict themselves as liberators of these downtrodden women while society is shown to be the oppressor. In particular, in recent times, Islam and sharia law are portrayed as the cause of women’s suffering.

Such a narrative is appealing to both Arab dictators and certain constituencies in the west. But allowing women to obtain a driving licence is little more than a public relations stunt designed to cement this notion of the Saudi regime as the liberator of women.

Over the years, gender issues have become an important battleground across the Middle East. They have been cited as reasons for international intervention in the Muslim world, and have helped to sustain authoritarian regimes. Saudi women will soon find that while driving is very helpful, their full rights as citizens can only ever be achieved if they join with men to call for full inclusion in a regime that indefinitely detains its critics and activists, has no political representation, no elected national assembly, and no government.