A woman drives a car in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, as part of a campaign to defy that country's ban on women driving. Saudi Arabia authorities announced that women would be allowed to drive for the first time in the ultra-conservative kingdom from next summer, fulfilling a key demand of women’s rights activists who faced detention for defying the ban. Picture: AP
Saudi Arabia’s ultra-conservative forces have long succeeded in maintaining a tight hold on women’s freedom of movement in the Kingdom.

When King Salman lifted the ban on women driving recently, it sent a clear signal that those forces were no longer holding sway.

Their conduct over the years earned Saudi Arabia the shameful title of being the only country in the world where women could not be licensed to drive. This is certainly one for the Guinness Book of Records.

Saudi women activists put up a brave fight and campaigned relentlessly against the ban. They were arrested and lost their jobs and passports - not unlike in apartheid South Africa.

The ultraconservative clerics often quoted Islamic law to justify a long chain of restrictions separating the rights of men and women.

The lift on the driving ban broke one of the links and has received widespread media attention perhaps because of the absurdity of the situation. But it was not the only link broken.

Salman and his young son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman allowed women into the country’s main stadium in the capital Riyahd, for the September national day celebrations this year. This was unprecedented.

Two months earlier, in July, the Education Ministry announced that Saudi girls’ schools would offer a physical education programme. The statement said the ministry made the decision to fulfil the goals of Vision 2030, an ambitious government road map for economic and developmental growth.

Vision 2030 acknowledges that women have to be brought into the mainstream economy to boost the country’s fortunes.

The changes have made some ask how these decisions had been made. The founder of Citizens Without Restrictions, Abdul Azeez al Muayad, told the website Memo, the Middle East Monitor, many questions remained. “We really want to know how this decision was made, why did they ban it (driving) in the first place and how did they allow it now? How did this happen? We deserve to know.”

So far minor links are loosening the chain. But will the core links that maintain the chain of inequality survive?

At the core of the system lies the country’s male guardianship system. Under the system, every woman must have a male guardian - a father, brother, husband, or even a son - who has the authority to make a range of critical decisions on her behalf. Women are required to receive guardian approval to apply for a passport, to travel outside the country, study abroad on a government scholarship, get married, or exit prison. According to a July 2016 Human Rights Watch report, they regularly face difficulty conducting a range of transactions - from renting a flat to filing legal claims - without a male relative’s consent or presence.

Women also face challenges making decisions for their children on an equal basis with men.

When I recently visited Mecca to perform the pilgrimage known as the Hajj, I had to take the male guardianship system into consideration. My eldest brother, Yusuf Jaffer, was registered as my chaperone for the five weeks.

I was not going to be drawn into Saudi politics and issues of women’s rights. I had another mission and that was to complete my Hajj without my peace being shattered. For once, I was going to leave my activist self at home. My brother was with me to deal with all official matters.

Little did I know that it was not Saudi officialdom that greatly tested this resolve, but one of our own.

The bus taking us into Mecca drew up outside a local hotel after a full day on the road. The pilgrims dressed in white traipsed into the hotel happy to have reached their destination. Some of us went to sit in the lobby close to the reception area as we waited to receive our room keys.

A representative of the South African tour operator, a Cape clergyman, welcomed us warmly. Instead of handing us our room keys he asked all the men to follow him into an adjacent room.

My brother objected and so did a number of women in our group. They piped up immediately. “But my husband is not here right now. You need to give me the key,” said one woman. I was a passive observer and kept quiet.

The man said the women should wait and would be attended to after he had helped the men. My brother was furious. I don’t know what I expected but I did not expect his fury. “No. They cannot treat you women like this,” he said.

He followed the man into the room and demanded our key immediately and came back still fuming. His outrage saved me from reacting.

Like this man some choose to believe that Saudi practices derive from Islam. How will they now understand their religious practice when the Saudis dismantle the chain of segregation?

Preventing women from driving, for example, has no basis in Islamic law. This and other restrictions were carefully orchestrated to exert control over the female population. The control of women’s freedom of movement sadly became a convenient football in the tug of war between conservative and progressive forces in that country - both religious and civil.

They will have to battle it out. It is their fight to fight.

The question for South African Muslims is whether they will challenge those foisting a conservative, Saudi-influenced position on women here. A recent visit to Kimberley in the Northern Cape confirmed that some clergy were attempting to do so. There are pockets of similar behaviour in other parts of South Africa.

It may just help if they read The Last Sermon of Prophet Muhammad (Peace be Upon Him) where he told men gathered on the desert plains of Arafat that women were their partners and committed helpers. “O People, it is true that you have certain rights with regard to your women, but they also have rights over you,” he said more than 1400 years ago.

It is a great shame that some in his birthplace chose to distort his message to a point that women found themselves having to fight for rights already theirs.

They have admirably pushed back and now the links in a restrictive chain have begun to give. Their actions supported by a younger governing leadership could set their country on a different course. If this happens, those clergy here who want to impose Saudi cultural practices on women will lose their grip, too.

* Zubeida Jaffer is writer-in-residence at the University of the Free State attached to the department of communication science. This article will also be posted at www.zubeidajaffer.co.za.