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Monday 9 December 2019
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Saudi Arabian women’s rights or economic opportunity?

Once a country that could boast of being the only country in the world where women were not allowed to drive, Saudi Arabia, this week, overturned this image when Prince Mohammed bin Salman granted women the right to drive, effective June 2018.

After over a decade of fighting for a right that many of us take for granted, Saudi women are now triumphant in this small victory. Their sights are now set on the next major move–to end guardianship laws that entail them having to seek permission from a male relative, usually fathers, husbands and even sons, before seeking employment, medical procedures and the like.

Naturally, there was some opposition to this grant of freedom to women. Comments of its vice and immorality were shut down with the firing of clerics who were deemed to be using their power to incite defiance in a nation where opposition to the state is either debarred or silenced. Yet, it is worth noting the fear that governs change.

It is unfathomable to think laws that debar women from driving still prevail in the twenty-first century. But then, this century is no indication of progress given the widespread discrimination on the grounds of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender that still exists. It seems that increased material progress and more availability of information makes for a heightened inability to make informed judgments. But this is the danger of the single narrative, if I may be permitted to borrow Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s idea. And it is also the danger of poor education, one that teaches people to regurgitate accepted bodies of knowledge without the accompanying development of the capacity to think critically.

The Rohyinga refugee crisis remains troubling and uppermost in my mind as an example of the oppressive use of law and history. It is another typical example of a single narrative. Historically, crafting an image of the other whoever that “other” is, in a negative frame, serves the drive to control. Race narratives in the United States are a fitting example of crafting stereotypes as a means of control. Should the thinking person begin to investigate in an objective manner, one would uncover, all over the world, instances of centuries of lies and propaganda created for the purposes of building nations and colonising territories. This nationhood rhetoric naturally involves some form of one-sidedness.

So in Trinidad, despite our diversity, a common marketing slogan “Trinidad, Land of Steelpan, Calypso and Carnival” naturally sidelines others who do not fall under this category.

One can ascribe a similar analogy to women’s rights, for women’s rights are the rights of the citizen who is, after all, a part of the nation. Any denial of women’s rights is a denial of citizenship–a view of the woman as “other” and usually an object to be controlled. And so, it is also dehumanising.

The Saudi removal of the ban on women driving is a change in tradition. Laws after all, are traditions made for specific times and, like many traditions, some also have an expiry date. We should be careful to note, however, that this is not just a human rights victory. If the state didn’t consider it a viable economic decision, the fight would have gone on another ten years in my humble non-economist opinion.

“I think our society is ready,” said the Saudi ambassador in Washington. Ready because the Saudi Arabian relationship with the US is important to its economic survival in the future post-oil world. Women also provide a way for the economy to move forward. According to some reports, women have to spend a large part of their income to commute to work by hiring drivers and as such there is a lack of incentive to take on jobs. This will now be rectified by their ability to drive themselves to work.

Nevertheless, regardless of how one achieved freedom, that freedom has been achieved. The end result is satisfactory to the important players. The citizens will deal with the decision in their own time. For there are, after all, those pockets of people who truly believe in the rights of women and hopefully this group will grow with successive generations.

But now, guardianship laws must be strategically lobbied for. Hopefully that victory will be more in sync with human rights because a deeper understanding of that perspective makes for more lasting change.

It makes one wonder, however, has any overarching humanitarian reason ever existed for the granting of that entity we call human rights– abolition of slavery, women’s right to vote and such? Or, are we contained within another imaginary narrative?

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