Saudi Arabia announces it will allow women to drive

Kingdom overturns long-standing policy which has become global symbol of repression

In this 2014 photograph Aziza Yousef drives a car  in Riyadh as part of a campaign to defy Saudi Arabia’s ban on women driving. Photograph: AP Photo/Hasan Jamali

In this 2014 photograph Aziza Yousef drives a car in Riyadh as part of a campaign to defy Saudi Arabia’s ban on women driving. Photograph: AP Photo/Hasan Jamali

 

Saudi Arabia announced on Tuesday that it would allow women to drive, overturning a long-standing policy that has become a global symbol of the repression of women in the ultraconservative kingdom.

The change, which will not happen immediately, was announced on state television and in a simultaneous media event in Washington.

It highlights the damage that the policy has done to the kingdom’s international reputation and its hopes for a public relations benefit from the reform.

Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, is a Muslim monarchy ruled according to Shariah law. Saudi officials and clerics have provided numerous explanations for the ban over the years.

Some said that it was inappropriate in Saudi culture for women to drive, or that male drivers would not know how to handle women in cars next to them. Others argued that allowing women to drive would lead to promiscuity and the collapse of the Saudi family. One cleric claimed, with no evidence, that driving harmed women’s ovaries.

Overturned

Rights groups have long campaigned for the ban to be overturned, and some women have been arrested and jailed for defying the ban and taking the wheel.

But the momentum to overturn the ban has picked up in recent years with the rise of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a 32-year-old son of the king who has laid out a far-reaching plan to reform the kingdom’s economy and society.

Beyond the effects it could have on Saudi Arabia’s image abroad, letting women drive could help the Saudi economy. Low oil prices have limited the government jobs that many Saudis have long relied on, and the kingdom is trying to push more citizens into gainful employment, including women.

But some working Saudi women say that hiring private drivers to get them to and from work eats up much of their pay, diminishing the incentive to work.

Freedom

In recent years, many women have come to rely on ride-sharing apps like Uber and Careem to gain some freedom of movement.

Despite the announcement, women will not be able to drive immediately. The kingdom has no infrastructure for women to learn to drive or obtain driving licences. The police will need to be trained to interact with women in a way they rarely do in a society where men and women who are not related rarely interact.

But many of the kingdom’s professionals and young people will welcome the change, viewing it as a step to making life in the country a bit more like life elsewhere.

Resistance

The change could face some resistance inside the kingdom, where families are highly patriarchal and some men say they worry about their female relatives getting stranded should their cars break down.

So-called “guardianship” laws give men power over their female relatives, with women unable to travel abroad, work or undergo some medical procedures without the consent of their male “guardian,” often a father, a husband or even a son.

While their enforcement has loosened in recent years, there is little to stop a Saudi man from greatly limiting the movements of his wives or daughters should he choose to do so.

Step Forward

Prince Khaled bin Salman, the new Saudi ambassador to Washington, said letting women drive was a “huge step forward” for his country. He told reporters that it was the right time for Saudi Arabia to do the right thing and said his government viewed women driving as a social issue, not a religious or cultural matter.

The prince said women would not need permission legally from a male guardian to obtain a driving licence, nor a guardian in the vehicle with them.

He said Saudi Arabia would recognise driver’s licences issued to women in other Gulf Co-operation Council countries.

Saudi Arabia is not taking the step at the request of the US and the issue did not come up during US president Donald Trump’s recent visit to the kingdom, he added.

But the ambassador would not comment on whether Saudi Arabia would take other steps to expand rights for women, such as further relaxing guardian requirements.

– (New York Times/AP)