[Originally published under the headline: "Saudi Arabia Lightens Up On Women- A Little"]
Saudi Arabia is about to become slightly less like a Taliban state. Hardline Sunni Wahhabis have long enforced strict gender segregation and the veiling of women, but that’s about to change, at least around the edges a bit. The government has announced that on June 24, women will finally be allowed to drive cars, and this week, authorities allowed ten women to swap their foreign driver’s licenses for Saudi licenses in advance of the new law.
Draconian rules—including not just a ban on women drivers but also alcohol prohibition, severe dress codes requiring women to cover themselves before leaving the house, and state-enforced gender segregation in virtually all public places, including Starbucks—have been so well publicized throughout the world that many casual and distant observers of the Middle East think this sort of thing is par for the course over there. It’s not.
Women can already drive everywhere else in the world. Saudi Arabia is just one of just two countries (Iran is the other) that require women to cover their heads in public. Alcohol is legal in most Muslim-majority nations.
Saudi Arabia is an outlier, fanatically conservative even by Islamic standards. Women there still won’t be able to file legal complaints against domestic abusers, wear clothes that “show off their beauty,” co-exist in the same physical spaces as strange men in public, or even try on clothes in department store dressing rooms lest men imagine them naked.
The young reformist Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS for short) has had it with at least some of this stuff. Movie theaters are reopening for the first time since the 1980s, music concerts will be tolerated again, and women will be permitted to attend sporting events.
Expect more of this in the future, not just in Saudi Arabia but everywhere. The Middle East is by far the most culturally conservative region on earth, but every part of the world has been becoming steadily becoming more liberal for more than a half century at least.
Want proof? Take a look at the chart below from the World Values Survey showing the rise of liberal values worldwide since 1960, borrowed from Harvard Professor Steven Pinker’s book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.
Think of “emancipative values,” charted on the y axis, as broadly liberal values. To be more precise, the surveyers define emancipative values as those which emphasize freedom of choice and equality of opportunities. “Emancipative values, thus, involve priorities for lifestyle liberty, gender equality, personal autonomy and the voice of the people.”
“Young Muslims in the Middle East,” Pinker notes, “the world’s most conservative culture, have values today that are comparable to those of young people in Western Europe, the world’s most liberal culture, in the early 1960s.” He adds that the Middle East’s liberalization is driven more by generational turnover than anything else as the young replace the old, a common story, especially in the West, since Enlightenment philosophers began reshaping our world in the 18th century.
My own experience in the Middle East and North Africa bears this out. The cultural gap between young and old is starker than it is here at home. Moroccan journalist Abderrahman Aadaoui explained it to me this way a couple of years ago:
We’re modern in the street, but we are conservative when we go home. We have two faces. A man may watch a pornographic movie outside, but if he’s home with his wife and he sees a kiss on the TV, he might change the channel. This is Morocco.
Modernity is new here. We got some of it from French and Spanish colonialism, and from America. After the French and Spanish left, modernity stayed. There will always be a debate between modernity and conservatism, but the new generation can be as modern as they want to be. They’re on Facebook and Twitter. They know only one thing. They are separating from the past. In twenty or thirty years, I think, we will no longer have two personalities. The duality we have here will fade. But people my age live in both worlds at the same time.
It’s worth pointing out that, contrary to popular belief, people do not tend to become less liberal—not in the general, emancipative, sense of the word—as they get older. Young civil rights activists in the United States didn’t become segregationists as they aged. Segregationists took the idea to their graves. Today’s Millennials aren’t at all likely to turn against gay marriage in their dotage. Likewise, today’s Saudi youngsters aren’t going to reach their 60th birthday and suddenly think women should have their driver’s licenses revoked after they’ve been on the roads for forty-plus years. That’s not how it works. Emancipative liberal progress is usually as permanent as change can be in this world.
In the Middle East of the future, when today’s young people are drawing their pensions, generations yet unborn could have values that resemble mine when I was growing up in the 1980s. Given even more time, young Middle Easterners may well be as liberal as today’s Millennials are. It’s tempting to think that Islamic conservatism will forever be as formidable as it is now, but scroll back up and look at that chart. Cultural liberalization in that region lags behind the rest of the world, but it has been progressing at almost the same rate as it has everywhere else since at least 1960.
Ten years ago, activists tried to convince then-Saudi King Abdullah to finally let women drive. He wouldn’t do it. He liked the idea on principle but thought the broader society wouldn’t go for it.
“I believe strongly in the rights of women,” he told Barbara Walters in an interview with ABC News. “My mother is a woman. My sister is a woman. My daughter is a woman. My wife is a woman. I believe the day will come when women will drive. In fact if you look at the areas of Saudi Arabia, the desert, and in the rural areas, you will find that women do drive. The issue will require patience. In time I believe that it will be possible.”
A little more than a decade later, here we are, with a younger generation of reformers making decisions.
If this kind of progress can’t be resisted forever even in as closed a society as Saudi Arabia’s, radical Islamic extremism itself may well sputter out and die over the long run, one birth date and funeral at a time.
Michael J. Totten is a writing fellow at the Middle East Forum