Free to Drive, Saudi Women Still Must Take a Back Seat to Men

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With her bubble-gum pink hair and stylishly ripped jeans, Doaa Bassem goes a long way to redefining what it means to be a Saudi woman these days.

 

At age 14, she learned how to change the oil of her father’s car and dreamed of owning a classic Trans Am. Although she assumed she would be barred from driving the sleek, loud muscle car, she wanted the fun of taking the engine apart and rebuilding it.

By 17, she had entered into an arranged marriage. Within a year, she had given birth to a child, divorced, then remarried and divorced again.

Now, at 29, she is a single mother who works, lives on her own and plans to be among the first women who take to the streets on Sunday, the first day they will be legally permitted to drive in Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy that is the last country in the world to bar women from driving. Ms. Bassem won’t be behind the wheel of a sports car, though. She will be riding a Harley.

“I’ve always been a tomboy and a rebel,” she said. “Now, others are thinking more like me. Parents have started to understand that marriage isn’t everything, that girls might want a different life. And society is starting to accept this too.”

According to the Saudi ruler, King Salman bin Abdulaziz, his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and their many supporters, the monarchy is verging on a great feminist leap forward. The change reflects the tectonic shifts in a society that have helped women reach the pinnacles of academic and professional success, combined with the effects of globalization, which have brought more openness to the kingdom than at anytime in its recent history.

The new law allowing women to drive removes a lightning rod for critics and allies who have long derided the Saudis, a bastion of conservative Islamic orthodoxy, for following a repressive practice embraced by groups like the Taliban and the Islamic State. The new law also dovetails with the monarchy’s ambitious economic changes that aim to wean Saudi Arabia, OPEC’s top producer, from dependence on oil and to diversify the economy — shifts that require women to be workers and consumers.

However, while the joy shared by tens of thousands of Saudi women over the right to take the wheel is undeniable, a bright red line keeps them from equality — the restrictive guardianship system. It is a mix of law and custom under which women remain dependents of male relatives — a father, husband, brother, uncle or son — their whole lives.

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