Let women drive and make own decisions, Saudi activist urges new crown prince

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Heba Kanso

Saudi Arabian woman who was jailed for daring to drive is encouraging the conservative kingdom’s new crown prince to let women drive and make their own decisions as adults.

Manal al-Sharif hit world headlines in 2011 when she filmed a video of herself driving in Saudi Arabia, the only country in the world to ban women from getting behind the wheel, and posted it on Youtube where it went viral.

Two days later she was arrested and imprisoned for about a week, in the process becoming the face of the women’s driving movement much to the chagrin of the country’s hardline clerics.

Now based in Australia, al-Sharif welcomed King Salman’s announcement on Wednesday that his son Mohammed bin Salman, 31, is to be next in line to the throne, replacing his cousin, as the kingdom seeks to overhaul its oil-dependent economy.

She said she was hopeful the prince’s young age and his work on the country’s Vision 2030, that has a target to lift women in the workforce to 30 per cent by 2030 from 22 per cent, would open more doors for women.

“I do have big expectations … all the things his predecessors couldn’t do, he will have the power to overturn the unjust laws that hinder women from reaching their full potential,” al-Sharif told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview from Los Angeles.

Many younger Saudi Arabians regard Prince Mohammed’s ascent as evidence that their generation is taking a central place in running a country whose patriarchal traditions have for decades made power the province of the old and blocked women’s progress.

Al-Sharif, 38, said there has been some forward steps for women in recent years such as being allowed to work in certain retail and hospitality jobs. Women are now also allowed to vote and stand in municipal elections.

But she said there is one major advancement that’s missing.

The male guardianship system, which requires women to get permission from a male relative before travelling overseas, getting married, or seeking medical care, gives Saudi women a legal status that resembles that of a minor.

In some cases, the male relative with responsibility over a Saudi woman may be her own teenage son.

“Calling a woman legally (an) adult. That will change the whole spectrum when it comes to women’s rights in Saudi Arabia,” said al-Sharif, who this month released a memoir called Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening.

“Then she doesn’t need permission from anyone to work, or to leave the country … or to go to court and file a lawsuit.”

Al-Sharif said declaring a woman an adult at 18 should be the first change that should happen for women in the gender-segregated nation under Prince Mohammed.

As for driving, she doesn’t know exactly women will get behind the wheel in her country.

“I hope before the self-driving car takes over,” she quipped, encouraging more Saudi women to start driving. “This very simple act of civil disobedience will make society accept women drivers in my country … accept women to be independent … I will never stop campaigning until the first drivers license is issued to a Saudi woman.”

Thomson Reuters Foundation

 

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