Saudi women are now legally able to drive. But women’s rights activists aren’t the ones getting credit.

A Saudi woman practices driving in Riyadh on April 29 before the ban against women driving was lifted.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman is being hailed as a feminist reformer. He’s not. 

Starting this Sunday, June 24, women in Saudi Arabia will legally be allowed to drive.

But while women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia have been campaigning for reform for years, it’s the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, who is getting most of the credit.

The country first announced its plans to lift the ban on women driving back in September, after King Salman, the crown prince’s father, issued a royal decree allowing the government to issue driver’s licenses to “men and women alike.” Earlier this month, 10 Saudi women applied for and received their licenses.

The 32-year-old Saudi Crown Prince has largely been credited as the person behind the initiative to abolish the driving ban. The press has heralded him as a progressive reformer and he was received positively during a recent visit to the United States, where he met with President Donald Trump, among others.

But the crown prince has also overseen some pretty questionable activities — he’s successfully eliminated his rivals by imprisoning many prominent Saudi officials and business elites while claiming he was fighting corruption. And he’s overseen a brutal war on Yemen that has ravaged the country.

In addition to this, Saudi society still has a long way to go before women are treated as equals. One sign of this is the country’s guardianship system, which forces women to seek permission from their male relatives to do basic things, like travel or work. And though Sunday’s shift is momentous, it’s important to note that there are several women’s rights activists who are still in prison for fighting for the right to drive.

Women’s rights activists are still behind bars

Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of Islam, and as Sarah Wildman wrote for Vox, the ban on women drivers has long been explained as being religiously motivated. But it is the only country in the world, of any religion, that had instituted such a ban.

Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia’s prosecutor said that a total of 17 women’s rights activists were being detained after they were arrested on suspicion of undermining security. And at least three women activists who campaigned for abolishing the driving ban — Loujain al-Hathloul, Eman al-Nafjan, and Aziza al-Yousef — are still behind bars, according to Reuters.

“What the Saudi authorities seem to be trying to do is to make it clear that firstly, any reform taking place is only due to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman,” Rothna Begum, women’s rights researcher on the Middle East and North Africa for Human Rights Watch, told Vox’s Karen Turner. “They are attempting to revise the history of the actual activism that took place by these women’s rights activists,” Begum said.

Giving women the right to drive also seems to have been a highly strategic move by the Saudi government.

First, barring women from driving gave the country a bad reputation. Saudi Arabia, ranked the seventh most gender-unequal country in the world by a World Bank metric, was under international pressure to rescind the longstanding ban for years.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, allowing women to drive will help the Saudi economy. Abolishing the ban brings more women into the workforce because they can drive themselves to work. Plus, car service companies, like Uber and Careem, can employ them; they’ve already started recruiting women drivers.

The Saudi government’s massive plan to expand the country’s economy, labeled Vision 2030, includes the goal of increasing women’s participation in the workforce from 22 percent to 30 percent.

So, sure, the Saudi crown prince may genuinely care about women’s rights. But he also has an underlying economic motive to give women the right to drive. And though the press has been portraying him as a pioneering reformer of a traditionally conservative country, it’s pretty difficult to call him a feminist when some of the same women who advocated for this change remain behind bars.

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