Arab News, a Saudi government media outlet published in English, has an article describing a couple religious scholars supporting the proposition that Islamic law does not in fact prohibit women from driving. The story is buoyed by a rough survey of respondents that show the majority of Saudi men and women support this to various degrees.
Arab News would not print this unless there was a conscious decision at the top to initiate and open up this debate — as I’ve noted in the past, the Saudi King has to sign off on the editors of the major papers, which means that if this was printed, it was effectively sanctioned by the Saudi government. It might be testing the waters but it is nonetheless significant.
While a general consensus continues to lament the lack of political reform in the Middle East and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in particular, I get the impression most aren’t paying close enough attention to the micro-trends in Saudi Arabia that are so celebrated in American society.
In January, Saudi authorities confronted religious codes and removed the ban that prohibited women from staying in hotels unaccompanied. Stephen McInerney of the Project on Middle East Democracy reviewed these trends in a well-balanced piece exploring the latest reform efforts in the end of January:
The past two weeks has quietly seen a flurry of small steps toward greater rights for women in the kingdom. Last Monday, January 21, it was reported that the Saudi government had ruled to permit women to stay in hotels without the presence of a male guardian, effective immediately. On the same day, government officials also confirmed that a decision had been reached to remove the ban on women drivers, with a decree to that effect to be issued before the end of 2008. Lifting the ban on driving would be a move of great symbolic value, as Saudi Arabia is the only country to prohibit women behind the steering wheel, and this fact is the most often cited example to demonstrate the oppression of Saudi women. Also, on Tuesday, January 29, it was revealed that the Saudi Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs has approved the establishment of the first women’s rights organization in the kingdom, to be known as Ansar al-Mar’ah (patrons/supporters of women).
In short, the Saudi regime deserves credit for these apparent openings in terms of women’s rights. Given the timing, the moves appear to be at least partly the result of constructive pressure from the international community including the United States. Needless to say, the Saudi regime still has a very long path to tread in terms of women’s rights and equality, but hopefully these measures signal the beginning of a long period of steady progress, rather than merely an isolated burst of activity. The recent moves can also be taken as encouraging evidence that international diplomatic pressure can yield results. But it is critical that such pressure on the Saudi regime not abate once the long-awaited arms deal is finalized in February and a few positive steps have been taken. It is also essential that recently announced measures such as the lifting of the driving ban be carried out as planned — authoritarian Arab regimes have become increasingly adept at timing announcements of reform to relieve international pressure, then failing to carry out the steps as promised once the outside attention has diminished. If those conditions are met, and the recent moves turn out to be merely the beginning of women’s rights reform in Saudi Arabia, then the steps taken in January 2008 will have been very important indeed.
This should no be confused with a sweeping revolutionary reform that we witnessed in the 1980s. Eastern Europe was altogether different with significantly different historical trajectories. But while looking for the revolution, we might come to realize we’ve missed the incremental micro-changes which historians look back on and acknowledge to have gradually reordered a society.