According to the independent pan Arab newspaper Al-Yawm, Saudi Arabia’s religious police have now conceded the right for women to ride motorbikes and bicycles.
By coincidence, last month saw the centennial anniversary of the watershed 1913 women’s suffrage march in Washington.
But do these two events really deserve to be mentioned in the same context? Hardly. The lifting of the bike ban was not triggered by freedom riders clad in leather or lycra, waving placards and burning burqas. No one has had a dream on a Great March to Riyadh. Despite campaigns like Women2Drive and despite the courage of women like Manal al-Sharif, there is no suffragette movement in Saudi Arabia worthy of the name. And without one, crumbs of comfort like the lifting of the bike ban will continue to be insulting and ridiculous. In fact, they serve only to emphasise the appalling discrimination they purport to alleviate. They are brakes on the wheels of progress. In this case, for example, women may not use bikes for transportation. They may ride them “only for entertainment” in restricted, recreational areas. A full-length Islamic abaya must be worn and, “to avoid harassment”, women must be accompanied by a male relative and avoid places where young men gather! The authorities still refuse to budge on the driving ban, which dozens of Saudi women protested in June 2011 by getting behind the wheel during a day of action.
Wheels of change? A sign pointing the way to an incremental path of reform? I really don’t think so. Concessions like this just highlight the complete lack of basic human rights for women in a deeply repressive culture. We live in a world where true civilisation is still decades, perhaps centuries, away. These women will not be pedalling for Muslim women’s rights until they force their menfolk to stop peddling discriminatory rhetoric and policies. How long before the chains come off?