June 24 will be a momentous day in Saudi Arabia. It will see the kingdom cease to be the only country left in the world that doesn’t allow women to drive.
While Saudi Arabia had no official ban on female drivers, women could previously not get driver’s licenses, and could be arrested for getting behind the wheel. This de-facto ban had become a symbol (paywall) of the country’s oppression of women and tarnished its public image. Now Saudi Arabia is projecting a new image, as it tries to modernize its economy and ever-so-slightly loosen social constraints under the guidance of new crown prince Mohammed bin Salman.
For Vogue Arabia, which serves a mostly female audience, women getting the right to drive is understandably an important event. This new right could bring benefits such as allowing more women to enter the workforce, as they could now actually get to work. The cover of Vogue Arabia’s June issue, which celebrates the achievements of Saudi women, commemorates the occasion with a shot of Princess Hayfa bint Abdullah Al Saud in the Jeddah desert, perched in the driver’s seat of a luxury car.
The issue itself also includes interviews and features on prominent Saudi women, such as Manal al-Sharif, the activist who filmed a video of herself driving that landed her in prison for nine days—along with Saja Kamal, a Saudi soccer player and women’s rights advocate. “Knowing that such extraordinary women are taking part in crafting the future of the Arab world makes me look forward to the exciting times ahead,” Manuel Arnaut, Vogue Arabia’s editor-in-chief, said in a statement.
In her own statement, the princess said that she personally supports the changes taking place in the kingdom, though conservatives do fear them. “For many, it’s all they have known,” she said.
“It is easy to comment on other people’s societies and think that your own society is superior, but the Western world must remember that each country is specific and unique,” she also added. “We have strengths and weaknesses but, invariably, it’s our culture, and it’s better to try to understand it than to judge it.”
To Western eyes, the steps Saudi Arabia is making towards granting women’s rights are not particularly monumental, as author Robin Wright pointed out in the New Yorker (paywall). Women may still have to get permission from a male “guardian”—such as a father, husband, brother, or even son, to drive—and there are likely to still be additional driving rules they have to follow. There’s no indication either that the country’s conservative clerics will truly embrace these changes.
Beyond such caveats, women also “still can’t get passports or travel outside the country without the permission of their primary male guardian,” Wright wrote. “A Saudi female can also not get a foreign education with government support unless she is accompanied by a male guardian.”
The right to drive may be a small change for women in the kingdom, but it’s undoubtedly a welcome one. And it already looks to be helping Saudi Arabia’s global image—at least on the pages of Vogue.