Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that forbids women from driving vehicles. The Interior Ministry, the head of the traffic police in Saudi Arabia, will not issue driver’s licenses to women. Although there is no formal traffic law that specifically prohibits female drivers, females will get arrested and punished by law enforcement for driving. This strict prohibition on female driving can be traced to Saudi Arabia’s cultural and religious identity.
In Saudi Arabia, a strict branch of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism establishes the laws and rules of the country. Wahhabism segregates males and females in both the private and the public spheres of life. It creates a system that forces women and girls into second-class citizenry confined to the domestic sphere. Females typically rely on the permission of their male guardians (fathers, brothers or husbands) for all activities that they participate in.
They have little independence and agency to make their own decisions and partake in events of their choosing. Professor Jaime Kucinskas at Indiana University argues, “the ideal of feminine piety is associated with home, the need for protection and subsequent seclusion. Driving symbolizes the opposite: freedom in the public sphere.”
Why is this ban on female driving significant? After all, supporters of the ban argue that banning women from driving can protect them from potential dangers on the road and from potential harassment and violence from other male drivers.
However, through this ban, Saudi women have their freedom of movement completely taken away. This ban is only one factor that contributes to the gender disparity in the country and is part of a larger system that makes Saudi Arabia one of the worst countries for women’s rights.
Prohibiting women from driving prevents them from acquiring jobs, contributing to public life and to the formal economy. It preserves women’s dependence upon males and perpetuates the Wahhabism ideal of
There have been some small, but meaningful victories in women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. In 2011, Women2Drive started campaigning to overturn the ban by openly driving vehicles in Saudi Arabia. Women are now able to ride bicycles and motorcycles for recreation, but not as a mode of transportation. There is now female representation in the Shoura Council, an advisory body of Saudi Arabia.
Although women’s rights activists are campaigning to end the ban, their larger goal is to transform the social, religious, economic and political systems that oppress Saudi women. Saudi females are taught from a young age of their fragility and of their piousness. National laws and cultural norms prevent Saudi women from becoming empowered and having the freedom of movement and having the freedom to make their own decisions.
– Sarah Yan