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Sneering Western men cannot belittle these achievements

Last week was momentous in the history of Saudi Arabia. It began on Saturday, when women were not only allowed to attend the National Day festivities but also played a more prominent role as active participants. On Tuesday, King Salman issued a decree allowing women to drive. And on Thursday, another royal decree paved the way for the criminalization of sexual harassment. While all these measures were important steps, even leaps, in the right direction, they should not have come as a surprise. They are consistent with the course that the Saudi leadership has charted for the future of the Kingdom, in which women will clearly play a central role.
The document that outlines the objectives of the ambitious package of economic and social reforms, known as Vision 2030, is a must read for anyone seeking to understand the exciting journey Saudi Arabia has embarked on. Among its many objectives is creating an environment that will empower individuals and companies to play a more important role in the economy. This clearly applies to both sexes. In fact, the Vision, and other statements from senior Saudi officials, including a press briefing in Washington on Tuesday by the Saudi Ambassador to the US, Prince Khalid bin Salman, stress the increasingly important role women must play. They make clear that for Vision 2030 to achieve its goals, women will be empowered to be active stakeholders in a collective endeavor, not passive observers. Vision 2030 also states that one of its goals is improving the quality of life for both Saudis and expatriates. There is no doubt that last week demonstrated the leadership’s commitment to that end.
Since Tuesday, Saudi media has been full of articles examining the many benefits — economic and social — of allowing women to drive. Women of all ages, from different regions and of different socioeconomic backgrounds, could barely contain their enthusiasm as they spoke about how this will enable them to take more control of their lives and increase their economic opportunities. One woman, a prominent member of the Shoura Council and an advocate of women driving for years, was overcome by emotion as she thanked King Salman and Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman in a live television interview.

Gender equality is a work in progress everywhere, and Saudi Arabia’s three new leaps forward should be applauded and encouraged.

Fahad Nazer

At the same time, the decree criminalizing harassment made it clear that anyone who intimidates women for driving, or anything else, will be held to account. A young man found out the hard way that there will be zero tolerance of threats and intimidation even before the law is passed, when he was arrested for posting a video on social media in which he threatened women who drove.
Although the new driving regulations do not take effect until June 2018, a number of institutions are already preparing. Car makers and insurance companies have produced advertisements aimed at women, and colleges and universities will have parking spaces ready for the thousands of new female drivers by next summer.
Unfortunately, there was also no shortage of commentary that sought to minimize the importance of last week. However, Saudi women — and men — will not be discouraged by the cultural insensitivity and, frankly, ethnocentricity of some critics, especially some Western men.  I have one well-known American news anchor in mind but I do not want to give him the satisfaction of thinking he is the ultimate arbiter of human progress. He, like others, is either unaware of, or prefers to forget, the difficult and long road that women in the West and elsewhere have traveled to be where they are. Frankly, one would be hard pressed to find more than a handful of nations that can claim to have achieved full gender equality. It remains a work in progress almost everywhere. Every step closer toward that end should be applauded and encouraged.
• Fahad Nazer is an international affairs fellow with the National Council on US-Arab Relations. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, CNN, The Hill and Newsweek, among others. Twitter: @fanazer