Saudi Arabia granted women the right to drive one year ago, a historic move that cracked open a window to new freedoms for women who have long lived under repressive laws. The measure was enacted by the country’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who also eased other restrictions on women, leading some to hail him as a feminist reformer.
But behind the celebrations lay larger issues. Despite renewed freedoms on the road, in the year since the ban was ended, Saudi women remain subject to strict guardianship laws that forbid them from making many basic decisions without the permission of a male relative.
And some of the very activists who fought for their rights have been languishing behind bars. Here’s what to know a year after the ban on female drivers was lifted.
Tens of thousands of Saudi women are driving
Officials say they have issued tens of thousands of driver’s licences to Saudi women since last year. A handful of driving schools catering to women have popped up and dozens of women have shared celebratory photos with their licences in hand.
Car manufacturers have created advertising campaigns aimed at Saudi women, with experts saying the lifting of the ban could transform the country’s automotive industry. Rawan Radwan, a reporter for Arab News, an English-language news outlet based in Riyadh, shared a video from behind the wheel in honour of the anniversary. “I am commuting to work today, just getting my coffee, it’s a good time,” she said. “Congratulations to every female driver in Saudi Arabia.”
Women’s rights activists are still being detained
Just weeks before the driving ban was lifted, at least 11 women’s rights activists were arrested in a sweeping crackdown. In subsequent weeks, more were detained and many were later charged with crimes related to their activism. Some have since been released on bail, while others have remained imprisoned for more than a year, enduring torture, according to rights groups. Many still await trials shrouded in secrecy.
Human rights groups say that while it is important to celebrate the milestone for female drivers, these activists should not be forgotten. Yahya Assiri, the director ALQST, a human rights group, said in a statement that rather than being a cause for celebration, “this anniversary is unfortunately instead a sad and timely reminder that the many women who fought so bravely for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, including the right to drive itself, are still being punished for their activism”.
Loujain al-Hathloul, a prominent figure in the push to allow women to drive, was detained in May 2018 and is still behind bars. Her sister Lina al-Hathloul, who lives in Belgium, said that her trial finally began in Riyadh this March, though a later hearing was abruptly postponed.
Among the charges against al-Hathloul are that she sought to undermine the security of the kingdom, which her sister said stemmed from al-Hathloul’s contacts with foreign journalists, and accusations that she applied for a job at the United Nations.
“I would like people to remember that these reforms wouldn’t have happened if Loujain and the others like her didn’t put their lives in danger,” Lina al-Hathloul said. “Driving is a really good thing for Saudi women,” she added. “But on the other hand, if they stop the reformers and put them in jail and torture them, we question the good of the reforms.”
Saudi women still face strict guardianship laws
Some activists detained last year were also campaigning for an end to Saudi Arabia’s guardianship laws, which have long kept women out of public life. The guardianship laws are legal codes based on an austere Saudi interpretation of Islam. Beginning in 2017, a series of royal decrees loosened some restrictions – such as those on owning businesses and renting – and allowed for more mixing of the sexes in public spaces like cinemas and sports arenas. But many constraints remain.
Under the system, a girl’s father is her legal guardian; once a woman is married, her husband becomes her guardian. If her husband dies, guardianship transfers to her son or another male family member. A woman who goes against her guardian’s wishes can be arrested on charges of disobedience.
Saudi women do not need their guardian’s approval to get a driver’s licence, but they do need permission to marry, enroll in school and university, and apply for a passport.
Other abuses have overshadowed reforms
Even as Prince Mohammed has vowed to return Saudi Arabia to a more moderate Islam and continues to push reforms, international monitors say human rights abuses in the country have not slowed, with arbitrary detentions and disproportionate punishments doled out frequently.
The 2018 killing of the dissident Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents inside Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul has been linked to the crown prince, and has cast his leadership in a new light. A recent UN report concluded that the destruction of evidence following Khashoggi’s death “could not have taken place without the crown prince’s awareness”.
Rights groups have denounced a Saudi-led coalition’s continued war in Yemen, which has left the country in a humanitarian crisis. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty in the trial of a Saudi religious reformist thinker, Hassan Farhan al-Maliki, drawing more condemnation.
Michael Page, the deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said that in order to truly reform, Saudi Arabia’s ruling family needed to allow for freedom of expression.
“Mohammed bin Salman has consistently pledged to support a more ‘moderate’ version of Islam,” he said, “while his country maintains a prosecution service that seeks the death penalty against religious reformers for expressing their peaceful ideas.”