This article originally appeared on Broadly.
"For a long time, the issue of letting women drive was seen as low-hanging fruit. It's one of the easy issues—it made no logical sense for women to be banned from driving, and Saudi Arabia was the only country to ban women from doing so," says Rothna Begum, an expert in Middle Eastern women's rights for Human Rights Watch, explaining why Saudi equality activists have focussed their energies on overturning the female driving ban.
Women aren't allowed to drive in the Gulf state, although authorities are rumored to turn a blind eye in remote rural areas. But the campaign to overturn the driving ban received a major boost today, as a member of the Saudi royal family spoke out publicly against the long-enforced decree.
Prince Alwaleed bin Talal published a letter on Twitter and on his website, outlining why women should be able to drive. "Such a ban on driving is fundamentally an infringement on a woman's rights," he argued, "particularly as it continues to exist after she has won her right to an education and a salaried employment."
He went on to highlight how women's driving is an economic issue: Men having to drive their wives "takes its toll on the national economy for it undermines the productivity of the workforce," and the additional burden of paying foreign drivers is a drain on Saudi household incomes.
Despite his support, Begum isn't confident that the situation will change for Saudi women any time soon."Prince bin Talal is at the liberal, reformist end of the royal family, and he's often spoken out for women's rights," she says, "so it's not a surprise he's publicly called for an end to the driving ban." She cautions against assigning too much significance to his declaration of support. "If we had a more conservative prince coming out on the issues, then we'd really see that we're changing hearts and minds."
For Saudi women, the driving ban is the thin edge of the wedge: Their society entraps women within a patriarchal structure of oppression known as the guardianship system. Without male guardians, Saudi women cannot travel internationally, marry, divorce, or have certain medical procedures. Despite small, symbolic concessions—for the first time, women were able to stand in 2015's municipal elections—life for Saudi women remains extraordinarily regressive.
The campaign to allow Saudi women to drive has galvanized international media attention, particularly following the high-profile arrests and imprisonments of female activists in recent years. In 2011, activist Manal al-Sharif urged Saudi women to drive in a YouTube video. She was subsequently arrested, detained, and prohibited from speaking to the press, but her actions are credited with spearheading the women's right to drive movement. Thousands signed a petition in 2013, and a number of Saudi women drove for a day of protest in defiance of the ban. In 2014, 25-year-old activist Loujain Hathloul tried to drive a car across the UAE-Saudi border: She, too, was arrested and jailed. Despite these efforts, the authorities continue to hold fast to the ban.
"When the driving campaign took off in 2011, the Saudi government felt that if they gave in on this issue it would open the floodgates for wider reforms in Saudi society," Begum explains. "Really, the driving issue symbolizes the oppression of women's rights in the country. The Saudi authorities fear that allowing women to drive could lead to larger reforms in women's rights issues, such as the dismantling of the guardianship system, and so the issue remains closed."
Begum says that women aren't the only ones who stand to gain from a loosening of the Saudi government's authoritarian policies. "The Saudi government is repressive on a number of accounts," she emphasizes. "There's no right to protest; to unionize; to freedom of assembly. Giving Saudi society more rights—even if you're only giving them to half of the society—can potentially lead to other sections of society also calling for more freedoms."
If the government does allow Saudi women to drive, it will likely be for reasons of economic expediency rather than genuine reform. "Women need to drive to get to their jobs on time—if they have jobs at all—and without this reform the Saudi authorities will fail in terms of having an economically prosperous society," Begum argues. And with increasing fear of a recession thanks to falling oil prices, the economic argument for increased female emancipation may cause this regressive ban to be overturned—but not just yet.