Hit the road, Jack

For the first time, the women of Saudi Arabia have been granted the right to drive. Westerners are applauding this great leap/cruise forward as a win for women’s rights. However, dig deeper, and the truth becomes evident.

This is not a generous gift to women or a reinterpretation of the Quran. Instead, the change is an economic one. Young Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has announced his Saudi Vision 2030, a plan to improve the economic outlook for the country, which has serious economic issues. For years Saudi Arabia had rich oil resources, and the profits from oil ensured a cradle-to-grave welfare system—free housing, long vacations, early retirement from well-paid government jobs. As long as the population was small and money from oil was abundant, life was good rich. However, the price of oil plummeted, and the population grew (of the country’s 22 million nationals, 60% are under the age of 30). Only 41% of the paid jobs in the country are performed by Saudis. Seven million out of the 12 million jobs are done by migrant workers. None of these conditions are optimal for economic growth. Only one in five employed Saudis is a woman, even though women are more educated. Cultural and religious traditions and laws have held back female employment.

Saudi Arabia is not a place for walking or biking. Public transportation is poor. Taxis are not an option unless women are travelling in pairs. Tradition and religion forbid women from travelling alone, without a man. Thus, unless a family can afford a driver and car, transporting the women of the family must be done by a male relative. As the Crown Prince tries to meet his goal of more productive Saudis, he needs to eliminate men leaving their jobs to fetch a relative to the Dentist, etc. Changing the driving laws will not only ease the problem of under-employment of women, but it will also make men more productive.

As I watched the news reports on Saudi Arabia’s new drivers, I realized that it is not about the powerful acknowledging equality; it is all about the economy. Enjoying even the little bit of good news in the push towards women’s rights did not last long. This morning’s news featured the current survey on women’s issues by the Tompson Reuters Foundation. The survey rated the most dangerous countries for women. This list of the 10 Most Dangerous Countries is, bluntly, appalling and heart-breaking. It will also erase any trace of self-righteousness in America’s psyche.

  1. India…sexual violence and harassment, human trafficking, forced labor, sex slavery and domestic servitude
  2. Afghanistan…non-sexual violence, access to healthcare and access to economic resources
  3. Syria…lack of healthcare, non-sexual violence, domestic abuse, TIED WITH U.S. on risks of sexual abuse
  4. Somalia…lack of healthcare, lack of access to economic resources, harmful cultural and traditional practices
  5. Saudi Arabia…low economic access, discrimination in workplace and property rights, cultural and religious practices
  6. Pakistan …discrimination, little access to economic resources, cultural and traditional practices (honor killings), non-sexual violence, domestic abuse
  7. The Democratic Republic of Congo…sexual violence and general “hellish living conditions”
  8. Yemen…poor healthcare, economic resources, cultural and traditional practices, non-sexual violence, general humanitarian crisis
  9. Nigeria…torture, rape and killing in fight with Boko Haram militants, human trafficking
  10. The UNITED STATES…THE ONLY WESTERN NATION IN THE LIST…equal to Syria in terms of sexual violence, sexual harassment, coercion into sex and lack of access in rape cases

“You’ve come a long way, baby”…That belief truly has gone up in smoke. Wipe the condescending smile off your face when you hear Saudi women can drive now.

Written by Margaret Pendleton & published with permission.

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