Saudi Arabia lifting women driving ban to deflect bad publicity, says academic

'The Saudi king needs women at the moment. He needs the publicity given that his regional policies have utterly failed,' says Madawi al-Rasheed

Maya Oppenheim
Wednesday 27 September 2017 11:23 BST
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LSE Saudi Arabia academic: Lifting ban on women driving is being used to deflect bad news

A Saudi Arabian academic has argued the decision to allow women to drive in the conservative kingdom is a PR stunt intended to deflect bad publicity.

The King of Saudi Arabia overturned the longstanding policy which had become a global symbol of female oppression in Saudi Arabia, during a royal decree read on state television on Tuesday.

Madawi al-Rasheed, a Saudi Arabian professor of social anthropology at LSE, argued King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud was simply trying to avert attention away from his political failures.

“The Saudi king needs women at the moment. He needs the publicity given that his regional policies have utterly failed in Syria, Yemen, and Qatar,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “There is also a domestic issue here. King Salman and his son want to promote a neoliberal economy where women are drawn into the economy and he had already silenced all opposition to women’s driving.”

Ms Rasheed argued the king had bowed to decades of pressure to lift the driving ban as a smokescreen for detentions which occurred just a week ago.

She said: “To justify the detentions that took place only a week ago where almost 40 people were detained simply because they were activists and human rights professionals. In order to divert attention from this incident, we will find the women driving is now going to be headlines across the globe.”

The decision, which will come into force in June 2018, is widely seen to be an attempt to improve Saudi Arabia’s international reputation. The ultraconservative kingdom is the only country in the world that prohibits women from driving and it is common for families to employ male chauffeurs to enable females to travel.

After the decree is implemented women will no longer require permission from a legal guardian to obtain a licence and will not need a guardian in the car when they drive.

Officials and clerics in the kingdom have offered myriad justifications for the ban over the years. Some argued it was inappropriate for women to drive in Saudi culture and others claimed male drivers would struggle to have females driving alongside them. Other critics have gone so far as to argue the act of driving would result in women being sexually assaulted, engaging in promiscuity, the breakdown of family and therefore the corruption of wider society. One cleric claimed, citing zero evidence, driving damaged women’s ovaries.

Women’s rights activists in the country have spent decades campaigning for the ban to be lifted and a number of women have been arrested for rebelling against it.

The historic victory has been celebrated by campaigners in the kingdom. Manal al-Sharif, one of the women behind the Women2Drive campaign, hailed the decision by posting a photo on Twitter of herself behind the wheel of a car. Ms Sharif, who now lives in Australia, was imprisoned in Saudi Arabia in 2011 after posting a video on YouTube of herself wearing a black headscarf and sunglasses while driving a car.

Pro-women's driving activist Sahar Nassif said: "I'm going to buy my dream car, a convertible Mustang and it's going to be black and yellow."

The Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, the son of the King and heir to the throne who is often referred to as "MBS", established a far-reaching programme of reform two years ago. It was branded Saudi Vision 2030 and it is set to modernise the country by overhauling the kingdom's economy and society and reducing its dependence on oil.

The lifting of the driving ban comes after last week's announcement that women would be allowed to enter sports stadiums for the first time.

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