Women, rights and perspective
Regularly visiting Saudi Arabia provides an interesting cultural perspective, one that is at times shocking. One of the main reasons I accepted an invitation from Prince Mohammad Bin Salman College to teach a Digital Transformation course there, was, the opportunity it would provide to see the change underway in the country and perhaps to make a modest contribution toward changing a society that like most Westerners, to me seems utterly anachronistic. What’s more, I would be working for an institution named after one of the main protagonists of driving Vision 2030, which seeks an evolution toward a more modern society, reduced dependence on oil and instead an economy based on health, education, infrastructure, leisure and tourism, and where women will play a bigger role.
Since 1957, women have been banned from driving in Saudi Arabia, and will only be able to get behind the wheel as of June this year; and while women in most other countries would consider this a small step it ranks as a major achievement in the Kingdom.
In Saudi Arabia, change takes place behind closed doors. On some university campuses and in many private developments, women have been driving for a long time and need not wear the abaya, but this is still far from the norm. For Westerners, the idea of preventing a woman from driving by law is extreme and unjustifiable, incompatible with a modern vision of the world. During my time in Saudi Arabia, I have experienced many different situations in this regard: from the first day I have given mixed classes met brilliant women in senior positions, many of whom have studied or lived abroad. I have also found myself in the situation where, when wishing to visit historic sites with women perfectly able to drive, we have had to be driven by a chauffeur (In 2002, The Economist calculated that the half million drivers employed to transport women in the country represented around 1% of GDP).
I have also seen the impact of Uber or local counterpart Careem in increasing women’s mobility. I have met women who defied the ban by limiting their driving to certain areas or even disguising themselves as men, while others simply prefer not because they say the roads are not safe in Saudi Arabia. I have even met female managers at insurance companies who were surprised to learn that in many countries, women enjoyed cheaper car insurance premiums due to their lower accident rates until the EU stopped it on the grounds of discrimination.
Symbols are an important part of the digital transformation processes. In the context of the rapid and very visible change in Saudi Arabia: economic diversification, tourist visas, restrictions on the activities of the religious police and a greater willingness to tackle corruption, lifting the ban on women driving can seem trivial. But it isn’t, because there is nothing trivial about millions of people, simply because of their gender, not being allowed to move around freely: in a few months, they will be able to. I’m not sure whether this will be dismissed as largely symbolic, but it will be an important step toward liberation, of normalization, one of many that remain to be taken. Women in Saudi Arabia will once again have access to a technology, the car, a few years before they become obsolete, as self-driving vehicles take over. But in terms of rights, justice and logic, the struggle will have been worth it.
I just thought this might be an interesting topic to comment on today.
(En español, aquí)