Social Media, Globalization, and the Right to Drive
By Christina Grossi
By Carlos Latuff - http://twitpic.com/5dqlk4, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.
As Saudi Arabia rose to become a global economic power, largely due to its vast oil reserves, the once little-known country became subject to the global spotlight. International scrutiny is particularly intense regarding women's rights in Saudi Arabia, and since the early 2000s, this controversy has centered around the movement by women in Saudi Arabia protesting the ban on women's driving. The legal ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia originated in 1990, when around fifty women drove cars through public streets in defiance of cultural stigma around women driving, which some called an "unofficial ban" (Doumato 34). In response, the Saudi Ministry of Interior introduced the official, legal ban, which the Saudi government upheld and enforced until June of 2018, when the government lifted the ban, granting Saudi women the right to drive without fear of legal repercussions (Doumato 34; Van Sant).
The government's decision to grant women the right to drive surprised many, given Saudi Arabia's conservative stance on social issues. The Saudi Arabian government is a religious monarchy, and as such, "Islam is totally ingrained in the fabric of contemporary Saudi life" (Pharaon 349). The actions of the government must follow Islamic practices, as "Shari'a (Islamic doctrine) is the law and constitution of the land" (Pharaon 349). In the case of women's driving, the Supreme Council of Islamic Research supported the government's decision to ban women from driving by issuing an official statement that, according to their interpretation of Islam, "women should not be allowed to drive motor vehicles as the shari'a instructs that things that degrade or harm the dignity of women must be prevented" (Doumato 35). Given the conservative nature of Saudi Arabian society and the prominent role of Islam in deciding Saudi laws and practices, the decision to grant women the right to drive seems out of place. This huge shift in women's rights policy in Saudi Arabia prompts the following questions: What were the most significant factors that led to the lifting of the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia? How did the rise of social media and the internet impact the movement to give women the right to drive? How did globalization play a role in the Saudi Arabian government's decision to allow women to drive? There are likely other forces that impacted the decision to allow women to drive, but for the purposes of this paper, I will focus on globalization and social media as the primary causes of this decision. I define globalization as "the connection of different parts of the world…[resulting] in the expansion of international cultural, economic, and political activities" ("Globalization"); I define social media as "forms of online communication through which users create online communities to share information, ideas, personal messages, and other content" ("Social Media"). In this paper, I will argue that social media brought global attention to the issue of women driving in Saudi Arabia, which, combined with economic globalization, forced the Saudi Arabian government to give in to international pressure and lift the driving ban.
History of Control
Since the 1980s and 1990s, control over women has been a defining feature in Saudi Arabian society. Along with the implementation of the ban on women's driving, the Saudi Arabian government enacted a series of other laws designed to control women in society on the basis of Islamic conservatism. One example of this is the system of gender segregation, under which schools, universities, charitable organizations, hospitals, restaurants, government offices, and other public spaces are segregated by gender throughout the country (Meijer). Another is the male guardianship system, which is the most comprehensive law controlling women in Saudi Arabia today. Under the male guardianship system, "adult women must obtain permission from a male guardian—usually a husband, father, brother, or son—to travel abroad, obtain a passport, marry, or be discharged from prison" ("World Report"). The system treats women as far inferior to men, to the extent that an adult woman may be forced to obey the will of her own son.
The implementation of these controlling laws provides a counterargument to one of the primary assertions of this paper, the assertion that globalization has been a modernizing force in Saudi Arabia. During this period, it was the opposite. Saudi Arabia became increasingly connected with the world during the 1980s and 1990s, but rather than encouraging egalitarian social reforms, contact with more liberal societies pushed the Saudi Arabian government the other way (Pharaon 356). Saudi Arabia sought to preserve its cultural traditionalism in the face of globalization, and used women as "the bearers of their culture's authenticity […] made to serve as boundary markers" (Pharaon 356). Particularly as the home of Mecca and Medinah, the two holiest cities in Islam, Saudi leaders felt pressure to maintain their Muslim identity through laws that would ensure that women stayed in their traditional role (Pharaon 350).
Although globalization was a force for conservatism in the 1980s and 1990s, its influence in the Saudi Arabian government changed over time. Laws that control women, such as the driving ban and the male guardianship system, may have been enacted as a response to globalization, but the movement to overthrow them also has its roots in increasing international connectedness. In this way, globalization has both encouraged social reform in Saudi Arabia and created barriers to it. However, in the case of the movement for women's driving, globalization has forced the Saudi Arabian government to make social change.
As a conservative state with concerns about controlling freedom of speech by its citizens, the Saudi Arabian government was cautious when first introducing the internet to the country. Internet was not implemented in Saudi Arabia until the late 1990s, and then it was only available through a government-controlled and regulated monopoly (Teitelbaum 224). Perhaps the Saudi Arabian government was right in being cautious; with the rise of the Internet, the world has seen that it is "homogenizing, and to a large degree, Americanizing" (Teitelbaum 223). The Americanization that the Internet brings can have a liberalizing impact on more conservative countries, often bringing with it demands for freedom of speech and equality. In Saudi Arabia, this effect has been most prominent amongst women. The majority of Internet users in Saudi Arabia are women, with estimates ranging from just over half to two-thirds of Saudi internet users being female (Altoaimy 3; Teitelbaum 234).
Given the vast numbers of Saudi women on the Internet and the heavy control exercised over women's movements in Saudi Arabia, it should be no surprise that the Internet quickly became a liberalizing force in the country. The anonymity of chat rooms allows users to discuss subjects that would be suppressed in public conversation, such as the issue of women being granted the right to drive (Teitelbaum 234). Online social media platforms give women the ability to express their thoughts and opinions publicly with more freedom than ever before (Altoaimy 3). This is particularly important in Saudi society, where group activism and feminism are not socially accepted. The term "feminist" is rarely used amongst Saudi women, even among those who believe in women's rights, and women's groups avoid the term "activist" even when their actions would be interpreted as such by many in the Western world (Al-Dabbagh 236-7). Because of the negative connotations around group activism and feminism in Saudi society, online social media platforms have been particularly helpful for the women's rights movement in Saudi Arabia. The Internet allows like-minded women to share their views from home without meeting with a group in person, an action that would likely be labeled as "feminist." The Internet has increased the ease with which Saudi women can partake in discussions surrounding women's rights issues.
Women in the pro-driving campaign used Twitter in a variety of ways. They used the platform to undermine religious justifications for the driving ban by examining inconsistencies in religious scholarship surrounding the issues and by criticizing the institutions that provided the Saudi government with Islamic support for the ban (Altoaimy 6). The movement did not call for the abolishment of religious institutions and practices in Saudi Arabia, but instead showed how Islam provides justification for granting women the right to drive (Altoaimy 7). Tweets from the women's driving movement also discussed the economic hardships the ban brought on women, as well as broader appeals for women's rights in the country (Altoaimy 8). None of these discussions would have been possible without the Internet, as these subjects are taboo in Saudi society. In particular, it allowed women to spread their ideas to men; given the gender-segregated nature of Saudi society, the Internet is one of the only places in the country where women and men can discuss controversial topics together (Altoaimy 8). Twitter gave the women's driving movement a platform to explain their position and to spread their ideas to others without being immediately dismissed as radical, as they likely would have been outside of the Internet.
Along with spreading awareness inside of the country, the global interconnectedness of the Internet also allows Saudis to discuss such topics with the rest of the world, drawing new attention to issues of gender in Saudi Arabia. Many of the women who protested the ban by driving cars illegally in Saudi Arabia posted videos of their protests to YouTube, where viewers could watch from around the world. This aspect of social media is perhaps the most influential when considering the Saudi Arabian government's decision to give women the right to drive. For several years, YouTube videos of Saudi women driving and being arrested circulated throughout the world, providing a powerful visual reminder that they were jailed for doing something that many consider an everyday occurrence. These videos drew unprecedented awareness of the issue of women's rights in Saudi Arabia. Major Western news organizations amplified these videos, covering the stories of the women protesting the driving ban. Because of the rise of social media, the Saudi Arabian government now faced a global public relations disaster.
The rise of social media and the Internet acted as a catalyst in Saudi Arabia, allowing women to draw attention to the ban on women driving both domestically and internationally. It allowed female activists to share their views from home despite the strict controls placed on them. The importance of this heightened awareness should not be understated; without it, the ban on women's driving likely would not have been lifted, as the international community would not have been as knowledgeable about this issue. However, social media was not the only factor in the lifting of the ban. Globalization and international pressure, particularly economic pressure, forced the Saudi Arabian government to account for the issue highlighted by activists.
Over recent decades, the global economy has become increasingly interconnected through technology, bringing countries in closer contact with one another than ever before. Nations are less independent than they once were, as they must answer to the international community both through diplomatic and political channels such as the United Nations, and economically through their trade partners. Saudi Arabia's vast oil reserves may once have shielded them from the political pressures of their trade partners, but as the price of oil has fallen and the world attempts to shift away from oil, they are no longer an invincible economic power.
Saudi Arabia controls a quarter of the world's recognized oil reserves, and their economy has long been heavily reliant on the influx of money that oil brings with it (Pharaon 350). However, the price of crude oil has fallen in recent years, demonstrated here by prices in the United States, a primary consumer of oil in the global economy. From 2011 to 2014, the United States average first purchase price of crude oil was $93.51 per barrel; by contrast, from 2015 to 2018, it was $48.04 ("US Crude Oil"). Dropping oil prices could mean disaster for the Saudi Arabian economy, particularly as the population in Saudi Arabia grows. With more citizens, the per capita wealth generated from oil production is far less than it once was, and continues to fall (Pharaon 350). The price of oil also fluctuates dramatically. In July of 2008, the US first purchase price was $128.08 per barrel, but by January of 2009, six months later, the price had fallen to $35 per barrel. Such dramatic fluctuations in oil price, coupled with falling oil prices, make the Saudi Arabian economy unstable and likely to decline.
In the face of an impending economic slowdown, the Saudi Arabian government now looks to diversify, stabilize, and drive growth in its economy. Their new Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, initiated "Vision 2030," which outlines his vision for the future of Saudi Arabia. It includes reducing Saudi dependence on oil, diversifying its economy, and improving women's rights in the country (Van Sant). The inclusion of women's rights amongst economic goals indicates that Saudi Arabia feels pressure from the international community to meet the political and social norms that come along with globalization. The United Nations has pressured the Saudi Arabian government to make significant changes to the women's rights situation in the country, and it "continues to exert significant efforts to hold the Arab states accountable to improve the status of its women" (Pharaon 352). It has further called for Saudi Arabia to adopt an anti-discrimination law ("World Report"). In particular, the ban on female drivers has been "widely criticized" by the international community (Van Sant).
The lifting of the ban on women's driving directly coincides with economic and political difficulties in the Saudi Arabian government, suggesting that the ban was lifted in response to international pressures. Mohammed bin Salman's campaign to portray himself as a champion of women's rights supports this idea. The move to allow women's driving has been "touted as part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's promise to push through reforms and modernise the conservative kingdom" (Al Omran). Some feel that this does not acknowledge the role of female activists who protested the ban. Seven of the most prominent activists were arrested on charges of "suspicious contact with foreign entities" just weeks before the ban was officially lifted (Al Omran). According to one activist, they were "held in solitary confinement, beaten, waterboarded, given electric shocks, sexually harassed and threatened with rape and murder" (Al-Hathloul). Other activists have stated that the government warned them against commenting on the women's driving issue (Al Omran). The timing of the arrests, threats, and maltreatment suggest that these activists were jailed in order to prevent them from taking credit for the lifting of the ban, even though, as previously discussed, their actions were a primary factor in bringing attention to the issue of women driving in Saudi Arabia. Mohammed bin Salman does not want to give credit to civilians for bringing about this change, as this would challenge the power of the Saudi Arabian monarchy. Instead, he seeks to take full credit for this modernizing act so as to create the appearance that the Saudi Arabian government is becoming more modern and egalitarian.
Globalization, economic problems, and the rise of social media drove the Saudi Arabian government's decision to lift the ban on women's driving. Social media increased awareness of the issue both inside the country and out. Domestically, social media enabled Saudis to discuss issues of gender in unprecedented open conversations, while internationally, it increased the pressure on the Saudi Arabian government to modernize by giving the world a firsthand look at the women's rights situation inside of the country. The decline of the Saudi Arabian economy forced the government to concede to the demands of its trade partners and the global community. All of these factors acting together forced the Saudi Arabian government to take this step towards modernization, or risk being left behind in an increasingly interconnected world.
After the ban was lifted, Saudi Arabian women celebrated their newly-granted right to drive by arriving en masse to become licensed drivers. One even commemorated the occasion with a rap music video (Kreps). However, there is undoubtedly a shadow over this happy change for women in the country. Even as women have the right to drive, many of the activists who had a major role in making the policy change remain in jail. Women all over the country remain at a disadvantage to their male counterparts, as laws that forbid women to travel without the approval of a male guardian persist ("World Report"). In Saudi Arabia, as in many countries around the world, there remains work to be done in order to have true gender equality.
The example of Saudi Arabian women winning the right to drive provides a model for how social media can be used to make social change. Although social media was not the only factor in this case, it played a large role in drawing attention to the issue and putting pressure on the government to amend the law. Without social media, this issue would likely have gotten much less attention, both within Saudi Arabian society and in other countries around the world. One can hope that marginalized groups around the world will harness the power of social media in a similar way, so that it can continue to be a force for good.