The forgotten Saudi women

King Salman’s historic decree to lift the ban on women driving is indeed a quantum leap towards the expansion of women’s rights within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The King’s bold move is commendable, enacting one of the basic rights recognized by the United Nations.

Adult women who, under the Saudi guardianship system, must obtain permission from a male guardian to travel or marry for example, are not required to do so in order to drive, extending their freedom of movement.

While Saudi women activists celebrate the news, disabled women do not stand to benefit equally. Unfortunately, the SaudiWomen2Drive campaign failed to integrate the rights of women with disabilities within its mission. Women’s rights advocates have always believed that the ban on driving restricted their mobility. However, the experiences of disabled women have been directly or indirectly excluded from mainstream women’s rights dialogues in the Kingdom. Yet, numerous issues affecting the lives of Saudi women and girls are disproportionately exacerbated by disability when compared to both men with disabilities and women without disabilities.

Women with disabilities have significantly fewer opportunities to pursue education or careers. Their chances for marriage are slim, due to the stigma associated with disability. The Saudi community tends to see them as dependent, weak and unable to contribute constructively to society. Their problems are often discussed in the language of charity and pity.

The mobility of disabled women is hijacked from childhood, not merely because of physical or mental limitations, but because of the disempowering legal and social barriers they face. They remain confined in homes by their families for ‘protection’ and for the fear of stigma: ultimately reinforcing their neglect and isolation, decreasing self-confidence and self-actualisation.

Unfortunately, such challenges are commonly seen as irrelevant and less significant than issues of men with disabilities and women without disabilities. Many non-disabled women do not recognize that the aspect of disability forms part of Saudi woman’s identity in general.

Women’s issues that entwine with disability, such as access to health, education, employment, susceptibility to gender-based violence, unequal family rights, their marriage status, housing, participation in public life, representation, legal capacity and freedom of movement—are all-too-often discussed without reference to disability.

SaudiWomen2Drive, the Inclusive Version

The right to freedom of movement is set out in both Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 20 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), both ratified by Saudi Arabia. According to the CRPD, right of movement entails, ‘facilitating the personal mobility of persons with disabilities in the manner and at the time of their choice.’

In order for all Saudi women to achieve this right, both legal and social barriers to freedom of movement should be lifted.

Lifting male guardianship, granting rights to self-determination and to travel and to relocate at will must apply to all women, and any decree or law aimed at the betterment and protection of women should not discriminate on the basis of disability.

Advocates for women have to ensure that the prospective anti-harassment draft law ordered by King Salman explicitly criminalizes any type of harassment against women with disabilities.

Saudi women’s access to public areas, including city streets, public buildings and public transportation, has to take the specific needs of women with disabilities into account.

Inclusive mobility rights require mobility skills training for women with disabilities and their caregivers, such as training on driving adapted vehicles, mobility aids, devices, and assistive technologies, and encouraging the private sector to make such mobility products and services available on the market.

Adopting a disability-inclusive approach to women’s empowerment will certainly have a significant positive impact on the Saudi economic reform vision of 2030. I encourage women’s rights advocates in Saudi Arabia to enrich and broaden the scope of their campaigns by introducing disability rights to their discussions, and to collaborate with the government to take the necessary steps to empower disabled women to become participating, contributing and respected members of their society.

Now more than ever before, Saudi women need to make the issues of women with disabilities visible, and to redefine the concept of collective action they are calling for in order to achieve a true inclusive futuristic development.

When we separate feminism and disability rights and view them as separate experiences, we create political movements that overlook the lives of disabled women and double their invisibility. Feminist and disability rights are covered with the same garments and must both fight the same battles to challenge the unjust social structures that placed them at the margins for decades.