Saudi women reach a new milestone. If until 2018 they could not even drive cars, today they can drive trains. A small step towards women’s emancipation in a country where discrimination and violence are unfortunately still on the agenda.

Saudi women will be able to drive trains

The reform process that should improve the condition of women in Saudi Arabia began several years ago. The last milestone reached concerns the possibility for women to drive trains. A small thing? Not really, or at least not for a conservative country like Arabia, in which sharia (Islamic law) is in force. 

In 2018 alone, women weren’t even allowed to drive cars. Today, however , 28 thousand applications have arrived to fill 30 new jobs as a driver. These numbers refer to a recent tender launched by the Spanish railway company Renfe (the country’s main railway operator).

Those 30 places are not just an occupation and a consequent economic stability. They are the symbol of female emancipation that trembles. But could they really be occupied by women? The company has made it known that, in order to cut through the tide of applications, it will examine the qualifications of each one and favor those who know the English language.

And this is where the painful notes unfortunately come. The literacy rate of Saudi women is 92.7% (versus 97.1% of men) but of them only 68.9% have a degree . In addition there is to consider that schools are divided by sex up to high school. Only at the university male and female students could interact but it is widely believed that it is unfortunate for a woman to frequent places with large male attendance. Many faculties are therefore still closed to women. In 2020, 2 new exclusively female universities were inaugurated but there is still a long way to go.

Women in Saudi Arabia: gender gap and rights

Saudi Arabia is among the last places in the Global Gender Gap Report , a ranking drawn up every year by the World Economic Forum and which photographs the global condition of women. 

Despite a series of positive news in recent years, the Middle Eastern kingdom still has enormous problems with regards to women’s rights and human rights in general. Taking a small overview of the most significant achievements for women, we recall that in 2013 Bayan Mahmoud Al-Zahran became the first female lawyer. On 12 December 2015 women go to the vote for the first time and manage to elect 20 women in regional councils.

On 23 June 2018, after the mobilization of the Women to drive movement , the Saudis manage to obtain the right to drive cars and other motor vehicles. On the occasion of the 2019 World Cup, women will be allowed to attend sporting events for the first time. Finally, in 2022, in addition to being able to drive trains, women will also be able to practice the profession of taxi driver.

Saudi Arabia: inaction is the common opinion that rowed against women

In the face of these great achievements, however, the issue of issues remains unresolved, the one that alone could undermine a large part of the Saudi patriarchal system. We are talking about the figure of the mahram, a guardian who carries out a series of actions on behalf of the woman he ‘protects’.

The mahram can be the father, a brother, the spouse or the child of a woman and plays a key role in the life of the latter as it is the only one who can give consent or not to a marriage , to a surgery. , a trip abroad and many other actions. Feminist activists have proposed its repeal in parliament but in fact the debate is not open.

In addition to the rules imposed by the state, such as segregation in public spaces or the impossibility for women to possess material goods, there is to be reckoned with public opinion and common thinking that, especially in rural areas, row against women. Even if there are no specific laws on this, a bus driver can refuse to let a woman into the vehicle. In case of inheritance, a woman may receive less than male heirs or even receive nothing. 

According to Amnesty International: “In recent years there have been reforms aimed at improving the condition of women in the country, but despite this, Saudi women and girls have continued to suffer discrimination in law and practice, without being sufficiently protected from abuse . sexual and other forms of violence. ” Yes, because we have not yet talked about one of the most dramatic aspects of the Saudi female condition. The government has set the minimum age limit for marriage at 15 years but in reality even girls not yet puberty are promised wives to adult men with the tacit approval of their families.