First, an unequivocal congratulations to the women of Saudi Arabia, who have achieved a historic victory. On Tuesday, King Salman announced that as of June, 2018, the women of his country will be able to get driver's licences, ending a 60-year ban and many decades of protest.
There have been public demonstrations against the ban since 1990, when 47 women had their passports confiscated for getting behind the wheel. In the years since, female activists have kept at it, more recently uploading videos of themselves driving to YouTube to gain international attention, and suffering insults, jail time and even the threat of punishment by lashing.
It's impossible to overstate the importance of mobility to freedom in any country, but particularly Saudi Arabia, which influences the entire Muslim world. This is a monumental decision, one that touches my own family in a small way, as we lived on a Bell Canada compound in Riyadh in the early 1980s.
"Wow," said my mom, truly surprised when I told her the news. "It's about time." She had access to a private Bell bus for her errands, so she wasn't immobile, just frustrated at being dependent on my dad.
There has always been a range of women in the country, from those with little money who can't survive without mobility, to those with resources who simply deserve it.
Even as the Saudi feminist diaspora enjoyed the victory, it also set the next goal. On Twitter, using hashtags that gained worldwide attention, the activist Manal al-Sharif was clear that she isn't done yet. "#Women2Drive done. #IammyownGuardian in progress," wrote Ms. al-Sharif, who was arrested and jailed for driving in 2011.
The second hashtag refers to the guardianship program that puts women in the kingdom under the surveillance of male relatives; among other things, guardians have the power to approve marriages and travel. This week, the Saudi ambassador to the United States told The New York Times that women won't require a guardian's permission to get a licence, a rule that seems promising, but hasn't yet come to pass. It was just five years ago this November that authorities began sending men text messages whenever the women they oversaw left the country.
Guardianship is just one of the many human-rights abuses, of women and men, domestic and foreign, that are rampant in Saudi Arabia. The granting to women of the long-deserved right to drive must not be used to gain unearned goodwill, especially by Canada, which is already on the hook for selling the regime armoured vehicles that seem to have been used against its own citizens.
This development can't obscure the fact that speaking against the monarchy risks intense punishment, such as the flogging suffered by blogger Raif Badawi, in prison since 2012. Migrant workers from countries such as the Philippines and Indonesia still suffer sickening exploitation. Permanently ineligible for citizenship, they are often deeply in debt to employment agencies and shockingly vulnerable to violence.
It would also be short-sighted to allow this victory to obscure the fact that Saudi Arabia needs its women driving – and, more specifically, working. Right now, the country is a literal patriarchy, one that's been able to quell dissent by doling out allowance in the form of cheap gas. Hush money also comes in the form of subsidized jobs, which in turn allow men to afford to restrict the movement of women: About 1.4 million foreigners are currently employed as household drivers.
All of this is becoming unaffordable, and this past summer, the government unveiled Vision 2030, a plan to wean the kingdom off oil. That women are being allowed to help support themselves right now is awfully convenient – part of careful manoeuvring by the House of Saud, which wants to ease the country toward private employment while managing the demands for social change that will bring.
Since 2010, the percentage of women in the workplace has increased by 48 per cent, and for the past four years, women have been allowed to work as lawyers. Permitting women to move freely to their own jobs isn't magnanimous, it's practical and necessary. Saudi women need to be convinced to stay in the country and work, rather than slip out of its borders any way they can. Ms. Al-Sharif, for example, is a cybersecurity expert who once worked at the state-owned Saudi Aramco before she became fed up and moved to Australia.
The right to drive is a seriously hard-won battle that Saudi Arabia's women should properly celebrate. Like them, observers should realize this is just one obstacle on the long road to freedom.