Saudi women driving is about much more than ... women driving

Saudi women driving is about much more than ... women driving

Journalism, they say, is “the first rough draft of history.” I never felt this to be more true than when I filed this column shortly after midnight in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. And of all the places I have filed my column from, I never thought one of the most significant would be the passenger seat of my company car. 

Why historic? Why significant? Because the driver sitting next to me was one of my female colleagues at Arab News — and one of the first women to legally take the wheel in the Kingdom after the end of a decades-long ban. A few more colleagues joined us in the back, and together we witnessed history unfold on the streets of Jeddah. 

But in truth, the events of this day are about more than lifting an illogical and discriminatory ban; much, much more. Just as Abraham Lincoln’s “Emancipation Proclamation” in 1863 changed the course of US history, June 24, 2018, will chart a new course for Saudi Arabia.

It is certainly the most visible and daring achievement so far of Vision 2030, the reform and development plan led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, which, among other things, stipulates a greater role for Saudi women in the future of the Kingdom. Vision 2030 provides clear guidelines on empowering women, including them in the workforce, and eliminating the obstacles that held them back. 

‘Even before they drove, Saudi women were leading the way in science, business, design and medicine, contributing not just to their own society but to the world at large.

Faisal J. Abbas

Nor is this merely aspirational talk; no one who has visited Saudi Arabia in the past two years, or observed it closely and fairly, can ignore the solid steps already taken. Women have been allowed into sports stadiums for the first time; female chief executives, senior government officials and Shoura Council members have been appointed at an unprecedented rate; and most recently, impressive and much needed anti-harassment measures became law, ensuring that no Saudi woman need ever cry #MeToo. 

Against this encouraging backdrop, it can be dispiriting to read shallow and superficial comments in some Western media outlets, whose pundits downplay the significance of this historic day, and would have you believe that the role of women under Vision 2030 is limited to that of employees or consumers. 

Yes, of course economic independence is vital for female empowerment, and reforms such as ending the driving ban can only help, but to belittle their role in this way does a grave disservice to the remarkable achievements of Saudi women. Even before they drove cars, Saudi women were leading the way in science, business, design and medicine, and have contributed significantly not just to their own society but to the world at large. Taking the wheel will only make it easier for them to continue achieving.

As for the much talked-about “male guardian” system, there is no such “system” — merely some cultural and bureaucratic procedures that are no longer sustainable, and are being dismantled with each day that passes. Vision 2030 has unleashed the full potential of Saudi women, and nothing is going to stop them. 

Does this mean we live in a perfect society? Of course not. Is there room for political reform and more freedoms? Absolutely — but these apply to men as well as women, and Vision 2030 is the best way to achieve progress on these fronts.

Politics aside, this day is about celebrating a significant milestone on the long road of reform. So from all of us here at Arab News to all women in Saudi Arabia: Enjoy the ride! 

• Faisal J. Abbas is the editor in chief of Arab News.
Twitter: @FaisalJAbbas

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view