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Why Should Law Students Care About International Human Rights?

A look at recent developments in Saudi Arabia and why we need to care

If you have recently tuned into the news headlines – or let’s face it, scrolled through Facebook – you will have noticed a big development for the international human rights movement. On Tuesday, September 26, Saudi Arabia finally lost their reputation as being the only country in the world to officially ban women from driving. The policy will come into effect in June 2018 and the decision for women to drive will not be subject to male guardian approval.

The country has come a long way from arresting female activists in 2011 for driving and posting photos on social media as a means of protest. Even more recently in 2014, Loujain Al-Hathloul was detained for 73 days after being arrested for trying to drive across the border from the United Arab Emirates into Saudi Arabia.

Manal Al-Sharif, one of the women arrested for partaking in the protest of 2011, underscores the importance of women being able to drive in Saudi Arabia. Since there is no public transportation within the country and no pedestrian cities, being unable to drive gravely restricts the mobility of women within their own country.

However, just because Saudi Arabia has lifted the official ban from women driving does not mean it will automatically translate to societal acceptance of the practice. There is already strong backlash of anger and disapproval from some Saudis. One of the main arguments is that women are bad drivers and will be dangerous for the road. I wonder if they used empirical evidence from Saudi Arabia to make that argument… There will also likely be many restrictions for women behind the wheel. Nonetheless, it is still a step forward in the right direction.

So, just how did the ban arise? Is it a religious issue? Women driving was never a religious issue until 1990 when the first protest against the ban happened. After that, the Minister of Interior told the mufti (someone who interprets Shariah law) to create a religious fatwa (a ruling on a point of Shariah law) that would state why women driving would be bad. He recognized that although there was nothing wrong with driving itself, the fear was that the ability to drive would lead women astray and men would have a harder time maintaining control over women. So, if it isn’t a religious issue, maybe it’s a cultural one? But that wouldn’t make sense either because the women who protested by driving through city streets weren’t stopped by members of society; they were stopped by the government. Is it a political issue? Winner winner, chicken dinner! Previously, it made more political sense to place the ban but amidst increasing pressure from other countries, especially the United States, it now makes more sense to lift the ban. This idea is further emphasized by the fact that female activists were banned from saying anything about the new change in law (whether it was positive or negative comments) by the government.

I recently attended a conference called Canada’s Constitutional & Governance Challenges After 150 Years at Glendon College and Professor Macklin from the University of Toronto raised an interesting point. Her main focus was around private sponsorship of refugees in Canada and how that affects Indigenous communities. The central issue is that the level of hospitality and the welcoming nature of sponsoring refugees isn’t extended to many indigenous people who continue to live under a host of problems, including unclean drinking water, unsafe housing, and a lack of access to education. The argument is that hospitality should begin at home.

Although Canada has come a long way in establishing gender equality, that’s not to say that the remnants of a society that was previously ruled by men aren’t still recognizable. There is still inequality in terms of wages between men and women, how women are viewed in society in terms of what they do and how they should act, and the lack of female representation in our government. So, perhaps an argument can be made that we need to focus on the gender disparities that persist in our country first.

My response to Professor Macklin is that the choice between helping people at home and helping people abroad is a misnomer as they are two separate issues. It is important to keep a global perspective in our increasingly interconnected world without sacrificing the need to help our own. We need to be doing more to support Indigenous communities. Period. It does not come at the price of helping people abroad.

As law students, it’s important to learn about human rights issues not only in Canada, but also around the world. It’s important for us to learn about victories in Saudi Arabia to appreciate that we can move forward and to assess the roles we can play in such situations when we’re normally bogged down by readings of past cases and abstract concepts. It’s important for us to learn about the current injustices in Canada and abroad to recognize that there is still work to be done and to ask ourselves how we can respond.