Carwashing in the Arabian Desert

Saudi women are on the verge of being allowed to drive – just in time for the era of driverless cars.

Behind all the recent news and turmoil involving Saudi Arabia – including the announcement that the notorious driving ban will end in 2018 – is the grim reality of the oppression that Saudi women still face.

Soon Saudi women will be able to drive to a doctor – only to be denied healthcare unless they have secured a male guardian’s permission. The same applies for driving to the bank, their workplace or the airport. All such facilities remain solely the province of men –and women are only allowed to access them with male permission.

Manal Al-Sharif, the key activist behind the successful online campaign for the right to drive in Saudi Arabia, put it poignantly when she said, “Driving is not what we are looking for – but being in the driver’s seat of our only destiny. That means ending guardianship in Saudi Arabia, which means recognizing women as full citizens.”

Manal Al-Sharif knows well how the power structures of Saudi Arabia can and will continue to resist such changes. She started a minor revolution when she posted a video of herself driving in Saudi Arabia. But as the number of viewers skyrocketed, she soon started receiving death threats. She quickly became a villain in her own country – and hero to the outside world.

Manal Al-Sharif was promptly arrested and thrown in jail. But as a result of her courageous actions, more Saudi women began posting themselves driving on YouTube. They felt empowered by her bravery to use digital media to subvert the power of their oppressors. This was validation of the view that the Digital Age has opened new possibilities for promoting universal rights – even in some of the most oppressive societies on earth. Now, in the aftermath of their daring digital activism, the infamous driving ban is soon to be history.

Many experts view the lifting of the driving ban as largely an economic move on Saudi Arabia’s part. Since the oil price crisis of 2014, Saudi Arabia has been working to diversify its economy by attempting to open itself up to more foreign workers and to tourism. A kingdom ruled entirely by an authoritarian monarchy has little reason to care about domestic opinion. But given their depleting oil reserves and the drop in the price of crude the Saudi monarchy now has a self-interested reason to care about global opinion and standards.

If private companies can be guilty of “greenwashing” to cover up corporate misbehavior, then perhaps Saudi Arabia should be called out for “carwashing” – cynically making a headline-grabbing move that will allow Saudi women to enter the twentieth century by giving them the right to drive, all the while continuing an otherwise medieval legal system out of the spotlight. Manal al-Sharif is right when she says that “in a society where women aren’t free, nobody is free.” Among other things, stonings, floggings, amputation of limbs, massive censorship and public executions for those who seek basic freedom of speech or conscience are still widespread in the Kingdom.

At a deeper level, though, the oppressive social and legal systems of Saudi Arabia are reflective of the fact that despite the desire of the Kingdom to become a global commerce and tourism destination, it remains the only nation in existence in 1948 not to have embraced the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the most widely accepted and authentically cross-cultural human rights statement that the civilized world has ever produced. This makes Saudi Arabia a global outlier for their rejection of the most fundamental human rights instrument in history.

To make matters worse, the global community has assisted in the maintenance of this system of oppression. For example, the massive hypocrisy of electing Saudi Arabia to the UN Women’s Rights Commission sends a message that the world approves and sanctions a system as discriminatory as apartheid in South Africa was.

If Saudi Arabia is acting in its own economic interest at the moment, then this confirms that it will not do any more than is minimally necessary to stave off global opprobrium. So let’s send a clear message that human rights abusers are not welcome in any civilized system that purports to uphold human rights as universal. In short, the global community needs to continue to demand that Saudi Arabia end the deeper theft of legal equality and autonomy for women that is woven into the fabric of Saudi law.

Manal al-Sharif tweeted in response to the lifting of the ban, “Saudi Arabia will never be the same again. The rain begins with a single drop.” The world must ensure that this first drop starts a deluge in the human rights desert at the heart of the Arab world.

Matthew Daniels, J.D., Ph.D., is Chair of Law & Human Rights at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, DC, and the creator of www.universalrights.com

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