By Jonathan Lahdo
Jonathan Lahdo is a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania studying business and international studies.
These past two weeks have seen many firsts for the Gulf Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. On September 23rd, the country celebrated the 87th year of its founding with many festivities and performances that were enjoyed for the first time by a mixed audience of both men and women.  The Kingdom’s residents also witnessed for the first time in 30 years a musical concert aired on national television; the country’s cultural channel, Al Thakafiyah TV, aired the concerts of the world-renowned Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum, and has more such programming planned.  Neither of these events, however, compare to the country’s groundbreaking announcement on September 26th that women would be given the right to drive. 
Prior to this announcement, Saudi Arabia was the only country in the world that had a ban on women driving, making it unique even within the context of its neighbors in the Middle East, which are infamous for laws that discriminate against women.  The issue, however, is not one that was silently accepted in the period before this recent decision. Throughout the country’s history, numerous women have protested the archaic law by driving themselves. In a recent example, a woman named Loujain Hathloul was arrested and detained for 73 days in 2014 after attempting to drive from the United Arab Emirates into Saudi Arabia.  Of course, this was far from the first instance of protest seen in the nation. Fawziah al-Bakr, a Saudi university professor, was one of the 47 women to participate in the Kingdom’s first protest against the ban in 1990. Her reaction to the lifting of the ban was overwhelmingly positive: “It is amazing … Since that day, Saudi women have been asking for the right to drive, and finally it arrived … We have been waiting for a very long time.” 
In addition to the human rights progress that this decision represents, it brings numerous practical, economic benefits. As of today, only 22% of women in Saudi Arabia are employed, which the country aims to raise to at least 30% as part of its Vision 2030. This increased freedom of mobility will certainly encourage more women to work and contribute, as they will not have to rely on a male to take them to where they need to go. Furthermore, with women being allowed to drive, the disposable income of women and families would increase, as they would save the average 3,800 riyals (~$1,000) that is spent monthly on foreign drivers. Overall, the increased female participation in the workforce will likely help the country reach its goal of having 65% of its GDP being generated by the private sector. 
Despite the vast amount of positive press surrounding this news, there has been backlash on both ends of the spectrum. Within Saudi Arabia, for example, there are many conservative citizens that oppose this decision. One of the trending hashtags on Twitter in Saudi Arabia soon after the announcement that women would be allowed to drive translates to “My Women Won’t Drive.” Some of the tweets that used this hashtag include one that translates to “That's right, your sisters, mothers, and female relatives need someone to drive them around because driving isn't for women,” and another that translates to “Driving is dangerous for women.”  Conversely, some of those whom supported the change were skeptical that women in Saudi would be able to exercise this new right in practical terms as freely as it is described in the official law. Madawi Al-Rasheed, a Middle East expert at the London School of Economics, said that “the real question is whether this is a short-lived empty PR stunt or the beginning of fundamental reform in the kingdom.”  She also considers the notion that this could in fact be a large distraction that would divert attention from some of the Kingdom’s other human rights abuses: ““By allowing women to drive, Saudi regime wants to divert attention from detaining more than 40 [people] since 9 Sept.” 
In general, it is clear that this decision represents a fundamental step towards the distant goal of equality in Saudi Arabia, in addition to bringing economic benefits. The motives behind lifting the ban, however, may not necessarily be as forward-thinking or benevolent.
 “Saudi Arabia allows women into stadium as it steps up reforms”. The Guardian. 23rd September, 2017. Accessed 7th October, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/sep/24/saudi-arabia-allows-women-into-stadium-as-it-steps-up-reforms
 “In first, Saudi Arabia airs music concerts on TV”. Gulf News. 4th October, 2017. Accessed 7th October, 2017. http://gulfnews.com/news/gulf/saudi-arabia/in-first-saudi-arabia-airs-music-concerts-on-tv-1.2100381
 Deborah Amos. “Saudi Arabia To End Ban On Women Driving”. 27th September, 2017. Accessed 7th October, 2017. http://www.npr.org/2017/09/27/553918002/saudi-arabia-to-end-ban-on-women-driving
 “Saudi Arabia to allow women to drive”. Al Jazeera. 27th September, 2017. Accessed 7th October, 2017. http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/09/saudi-arabia-women-drive-170926190857109.html
 Ben Hubbard. “Saudi Arabia Agrees to Let Women Drive”. New York Times. 26th September, 2017. Accessed 7th October, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/26/world/middleeast/saudi-arabia-women-drive.html?_r=0
 Zahraa Alkhalisi. “Women driving could rev up Saudi economy”. CNN Money. 27th September, 2017. Accessed 7th October, 2017. http://money.cnn.com/2017/09/27/news/economy/saudi-women-driving-economy/index.html
 Mariam Nabbout. “Saudi women hit back at sexist 'my women won't drive' hashtag”. Stepfeed. 27th September, 2017. Accessed 7th October, 2017. https://stepfeed.com/saudi-women-hit-back-at-sexist-my-women-won-t-drive-hashtag-2006
Photo Credit: Flickr User MFA Russia
The opinions and views expressed through this publication are the opinions of the designated authors and do not reflect the opinions or views of the Penn Undergraduate Law Journal, our staff, or our clients.