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Could Women's Rights Finally Improve in Saudi Arabia?

Improving Saudi gender rights, some of the worst in the world, could be one of the more important small-scale accomplishments of the Arab Spring

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Six months in, it's still unclear whether the still-ongoing demonstrations and battles of the Arab Spring will produce a net positive or negative change for the region. They have yielded revolution in Tunisia, potential revolution in Egypt, civil war in Libya, potential civil war in Yemen, and violent crackdowns in Bahrain and Syria. Thousands of civilians have died, and though some regimes have changed for the better, some have only entrenched their worst behavior. It may be months of years before the uprisings recede and we can understand their impact. But there is one area where the Spring could finally produce one of the region's most-needed, most-overdue reforms: women's rights in Saudi Arabia.

This smaller, quieter, but promising Arab revolution began on May 20, when 32-year-old information technology consultant Manal al-Sharif posted a video to YouTube of her driving, an activity from which Saudi women are legally prohibited, as she lists arguments for dropping the ban. The next day, Saudi police arrested al-Sharif, charging her with disturbing public order and inciting public opinion. They released her after a week in prison.

The Democracy ReportAl-Sharif was not alone in her quest to protest the driving ban; not before her arrest, and certainly not after. A Facebook page titled Women2Drive, the organizing hub for the grassroots campaign, responded to the arrest by posting a flurry of videos showing Saudi women behind the wheel. The Facebook page advertises a nationwide protest planned for June 17.

Of the ten or so Arab states hit by protests, Saudi Arabia has been by far the most effective at quelling dissent and resisting change. It's a skill they first honed against conservative Islamist groups in the 1980s, and which they now deploy to near-categorical success against democratic activists. Many protests have been scheduled, some have actually been held, but few have garnered the kind of attention and momentum displayed in other Arab countries. Violence -- not a good thing in itself, but an important marker of popular outrage -- has been nonexistent. The regular cycle of police crackdown, mass arrests, and regime propaganda have continued largely as normal.

But the Saudi women's rights campaign could be different. Unlike with the pro-democracy activists, the Women2Drive agenda does not call for the toppling of the regime. The Saudi monarchy, though it always prefers the status quo, does not face an existential threat, and so is unlikely to throw its full weight into its battle against women. If anything, the Kingdom could reasonably decide that acceding to the group's demands might actually increase its chance for survival against the protest movement that toppled its allies in Tunisia, Egypt, and possibly now Yemen.

The Saudi regime has long used concessions as part of its efforts to quiet dissent and remain in power. In February, King Abdullah distributed $37 billion among the country's 27 million citizens in an attempt to simply buy out the protesters. In May, a few days before al-Sharif's arrest, the Kingdom opened what it says is the world's largest women's college. Though the college misses the point of the gender equality campaigns entirely -- a single-gender institution only reinforces the country's gender separation, and does nothing to roll back the systemic inequalities that persist outside of the college's walls -- it signals that Saudi Arabia is interested in appeasing the activists.

The regime may soon have to consider more than just activists if it wants to maintain its harsh gender restrictions. According to Saudi journalist Eman al Nafjan, who blogs under the name Saudiwoman, the arrest and rash of activism have provoked debate within the Islamic religious leaders who play such an important role in Saudi society. Though she says "ultra-conservatives" still insist that women should not drive, "You have sheikhs who have come out in support of Manal and lifting the driving ban." Such a public debate among clerics will be difficult for the monarchy to stifle, and could significantly impact regime thinking. Yesterday, the country's advisory Shura Council recommended that women be allowed to run for public office. Neither the elections nor the Shura Council play any substantive role in Saudi politics, but the recommendation puts more public support behind expanding women's rights.

Though Saudi Arabia is stable, it is also desperate. Last week, the country's labor minister announced plans to deport many of the foreign laborers who make up 90 percent of the country's workforce, a move to create more jobs for native citizens and cut back dissent. The plan is unlikely to work -- Saudi wages pale in comparison to the free handouts given to citizens, making unskilled labor economically unattractive to most natives -- but, like the women's college, signals that the regime at least wants to find a way to appease activists. Lifting the driving ban, the only one of its kind in the world, would provide a concession that the Saudi people actually want. And it would be a first step toward improving Saudi gender inequality. As first steps go, ending the driving ban would be small, even miniscule. But change has to start somewhere.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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