Lifting the Driving Ban Does Not Equal Freedom

A Saudi activist shares her thoughts on the recently lifted driving ban and what this means for women in Saudi Arabia.

Women’s March Global has worked in the past few weeks — through our Free Saudi Women Coalition — to put pressure on the UN and other international figures to demand the release of arrested Saudi Activists. Our Change.Org petition has gained over 214,000 signatures and the petition was sent to representatives in the Untied Nations as well Saudi Representatives. We continue advocating and amplifying the women in Saudi Arabia and activists around the world who are continuing the fight for freedom and liberation for all Saudi women.

Today we share an interview with Sarah, a Saudi activist who writes about her view on the lift of the driving ban, the oppression of women in Saudi Arabia and how Western Feminists can help.

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Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

My first and foremost identities are “concerned world citizen” and “feminist”. Heritage speaking, I come from a half-Lebanese, half-Saudi background; my father is Saudi and my mother hails from Beirut. My roots greatly inform my outlook on human and women’s rights in the Middle East — Lebanon and KSA stand in stark contrast to one another on these issues.

Growing up, traveling to Saudi came with a whole set of draconian rules and restrictions that didn’t apply when visiting Beirut. The different ways in which my mother was treated in both countries also stood out. That experience left a lasting impression.

Why are you an advocate for Saudi women?

It is nearly impossible for women in the Kingdom to speak out against their treatment.

Wives, sisters, daughters, and mothers cannot even report domestic abuse unless given permission to do so by their male guardians (who are usually the ones doing the abusing). The only recourse is social media, and even that is censored. That is why I advocate on behalf of my Saudi sisters… because I have the ability to do so. My attempt is not to rob Saudi women of their agency, of course, but to raise awareness in the UK and elsewhere of their plight. Hopefully, other concerned world citizens will do something about it.

How do you feel about what’s going on in Saudi Arabia?

We’ve always known that Saudi is hell on earth for women. This is nothing new. However, Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) becoming Crown Prince has totally changed things — and not for the better. There is a troubling dichotomy going on right now. On the one hand, MBS has issued some “groundbreaking” reforms, which include allowing women to drive cars. However, these surface-level measures totally mask a simultaneous deterioration in Women’s Rights: just as the driving ban hasbeen lifted, KSA has, in the past few weeks, detained a record number of female activists, most of whom had made fervent calls for the driving ban to be lifted.

Sadly, politicians and media in the West have lapped up the pristine image of MBS as a godsend reformer — which is just what the Crown Prince wants. So long as we look at him through rose-tinted goggles, he can continue consolidating power and muzzling the voices of female liberation without consequence.

What do you want people to know about the current situation?

I ask people in the West to not believe the deluded notion that MBS is somehow an agent of change in Saudi Arabia. Things are just as bad as they have ever been — the Crown Prince’s “reforms” amount to nothing more than bread and circuses intended to dazzle the likes of Theresa May, Emmanuel Macron, and other Western leaders. As I mentioned, the Kingdom deprives Saudi women of a voice. So, an absence of backlash towards MBS’ policies does not amount to acceptance or approval. Any true feminist should understand this.

With that said, I strongly ask feminists and allies in the UK and elsewhere to get engaged. It amazes me how activists will campaign so passionately form Women’s Rights at home (rightly so), but are of few words when it comes to a country that only recently permitted women to drive cars.

Anything helps. Share and retweet content on social media that raises awareness on Women’s Rights in KSA. Sign and share petitions to international organizations and governments aimed at pressuring Saudi to improve its record. And, above all, recognize the power of living in a democracy: do not vote for those who support one most misogynistic regimes on earth.

Do you think the lift on the driving ban is a good thing?

If I were some privileged Westerner who thought sharing articles about how super the Crown Prince is somehow does Saudi women a favor, then yes, maybe.

But I choose to live in reality. We can only judge MBS based on the sum of his actions, not by isolating one “reform” from a sea of excesses. Just as I compared the societies of Lebanon and Saudi as a child, we need to juxtapose the Crown Prince’s public face and behind-the-scenes conduct. So long as the lift of the driving ban is accompanied by mass arrests (with the West choosing to ignore the latter), it is anything but “good”.

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You can follow Sarah on Twitter and keep up to date with our progress on this action via our webpage.