Saudi Arabia has issued its first batch of licenses to women drivers, a few weeks ahead of the official lift of its long-standing ban. It’s a significant step for the kingdom, though there are still questions left unanswered, like: Why are some of the advocates responsible for the ban’s vanquishing still in jail?
The new licenses were issued to ten women on Monday, replacing those that they’d already acquired from other countries. The new documentation, however, will not be valid until June 24, the date the ban is slated to lift across the kingdom.
Allowing women to drive is the most high-profile change to arise from Crown Prince Mohammed’s bid to modernize the country, though it’s more clear now than ever that the newly relaxed attitude toward women’s rights wasn’t born of concern for their wellbeing, so much as a bid to increase business opportunities. To wit, at least 17 activists were arrested on charges related to undermining security and stability, and giving “financial and moral support to hostile elements abroad.” Human rights groups have said that the arrests primarily targeted women’s rights advocates, which somewhat tarnishes the flashbulb-ready gleam of the whole thing. As Rothna Begum, a women’s rights researcher for Human Rights Watch, told the Los Angeles Times:
“Now we have videos of traffic police handing over these driver’s licenses to divert the world’s attention from the fact that the women who were actually behind championing the cause … are not only in prison but have been charged and potentially face very, very long sentences,” she said.
Of the 17 arrested, eight have been temporarily released, while five men and four women remain locked up.
An announcement from the government estimates that 2,000 more women could receive their licenses next week. Meanwhile, it’s unclear when the rest of the activists will be released.