Saudi women might finally be allowed to drive, but not everyone in the kingdom is on board with the changes: Just a week after the ban was lifted, arsonists targeted one woman exercising her long-awaited and hard-fought right.
Two men have been arrested in the holy city of Mecca after allegedly setting fire to a woman’s car Monday. According to Arab News , Saudis across the country have expressed their disgust at the attack, though it suggests not everyone is on board with the kingdom’s drive to become more socially liberal.
Authorities in Mecca said one of the men purchased a container of gasoline and asked another to help him burn the car belonging to 33-year-old Salma al-Sharif.
Saudi Arabia’s ban on female drivers—in force either customarily or officially since 1957— was lifted on June 24. Thousands of women have so far applied for licenses, though the exact number granted his not been made public. The move has been lauded as a major symbol of the country’s modernizing direction headed by 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Sharif believes the fire was started intentionally by men “opposed to women drivers.” She told Arab News that before the ban was lifted, half of her salary was spent on drivers taking her to and from work and to visit her parents. Despite the legislative change, “from the first day of driving I was subjected to insults from men,” Sharif said.
Lina Almaeena, a female member of Saudi Arabia’s Shura Council—the formal advisory body for the kingdom’s royal rulers—said the attack was an “isolated incident.” Arab News spoke to another driver, Sahar Nassif, who also argued that “Saudi society is 100 percent ready and supportive of women driving. There is no conflict at all.”
Rothna Begum, a women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Newsweek this incident reflects trends seen all over the world, driven by “men who are absolutely against the idea of women having a space and being able to display or exercise their own rights.”
The top-down liberalization of the uniquely restrictive driving laws came alongside a renewed crackdown on the very dissidents who fought for that change for years. Even as the ban was lifted, prominent feminist activist Hatoon al-Fassi—one of the first to get her driving license—was arrested. Several other rights activists had already been detained ahead of the ban’s repeal. Saudi authorities claim the activists had been working with foreign powers illegally, and a handful are still detained as prosecutors consider charges.
Begum explained that these woman won the right to drive through their own activism, not through the charity of the state. The royal family has allowed the repeal “to appease the international community and to be deemed a much more modern state than they actually are,” she said.
Though 82-year-old King Salman sits on the throne, much of its power rests with the king’s anointed heir and crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman. He has amassed a raft of important duties and led a corruption crackdown in which more than 200 officials, businessmen and royal family members were arrested. Detainees were forced to pay fines to secure their freedom, netting over $100 billion for the country’s coffers and cementing the crown prince’s position despite ever-present palace intrigue.
One of the prince’s landmark projects is the Vision 2030 initiative, which is seeking to diversify the Saudi economy, attract foreign investment and create a more ” vibrant society .” Part of this is the elevation of women’s rights in the deeply conservative kingdom. In addition to being permitted to drive, women are now allowed to join the army , go to soccer games and attend pop concerts.
For generations, the Saudi royal family has worked closely with the country’s powerful and ultraconservative religious leaders. The clerics give rulers Islamic legitimacy in return for control over parts of the state and an elaborate religious infrastructure of mosques and universities. So far, the clergy has largely gone along with Salman’s liberal projects, though senior figures have voiced concern over new “immoral” pastimes, like going to the cinema .
Vision 2030 played a big role in lifting the driving ban, Begum suggested. “If you’re going to have foreign investors coming into the country, you need to be able to show that you are doing things in order to include women within the workplace and that you are not as discriminatory as you are,” she suggested.
Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system—often cited as the main obstacle to women’s rights in the country— remains in place . Under this system, adult women must obtain male permission to travel, marry, undergo certain medical procedures or leave prison, among other things. Saudi women hoped the end of the driving ban would mark the start of a wider call for expanded freedoms, but—in light of the recent arrests—Begum considers this unlikely.
“The authorities have never really targeted [Saudi women’s rights activists] in the way they’ve targeted them this time,” Begum said. A coordinated news and social media campaign branded the detainees as traitors and sought to gravely harm their reputation in the country. The attacks were designed to undermine any calls for further reform, Begum believes. “That sends a much wider message to Saudi society that you can’t demand your rights, you can only be grateful for them.”
This article has been updated to include comments from Rothna Begum.
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