September 27, 2017
King Salman ordered the reform in a royal decree delivered on Tuesday night, requesting that drivers’ licences be issued to women who wanted them
Women in Saudi Arabia have been granted the right to drive, overturning a cornerstone of Saudi conservatism that had been a cause célèbre for activists demanding reforms in the fundamentalist kingdom.
King Salman ordered the reform in a royal decree delivered on Tuesday night, requesting that drivers’ licences be issued to women who wanted them.
Following the decree, women will no longer need permission from a legal guardian to get a licence and will not need a guardian in the car when they drive, said the new Saudi ambassador to Washington DC, Prince Khalid bin Salman bin Abdulaziz.
“I think our leadership understands our society is ready,” he told reporters.
Asked by reporters if Saudi Arabia planned to relax the guardianship laws, or take any other steps to expand women’s rights, Salman would not comment.
The US state department welcomed the move as “a great step in the right direction”.
The decision comes amid a broad reform program that last week led to women being allowed into a sports stadium for the first time.
It is the most significant change yet to a rigidly conservative social order in Saudi Arabia that has strictly demarcated gender roles, and severely limits the role of women in public life.
Earlier this month, a Saudi cleric was banned from preaching after saying that women should not be allowed to drive because their brains shrink to a quarter the size of a man’s when they go shopping.
The move had been widely anticipated amid a transformation of many aspects of Saudi society that has been branded by one senior minister as “cultural revolution disguised as economic reform”. Recent months have seen live concert performances in Riyadh – albeit to male-only audiences – while the powers of the once-omnipresent religious police have been curtailed.
Saudi Arabia had been the last country in the world in which women were banned from driving – a fact that was frequently used by critics as proof that female citizens of the kingdom were among the world’s most repressed.
The most recent campaign to allow female drivers started in Saudi Arabia about 10 years ago, and reached a peak in 2013, when several women who had sat behind the wheel on the country’s roads were briefly arrested by police.
In response to the announcement, Manal al-Sharif, who became the public face of the campaign, after she was imprisoned for driving, tweeted: “Today the last country on earth to allow women to drive … we did it.”
Loujain Hathloul, who was detained for more than two months after she tried to drive into Saudi Arabia from Dubai tweeted simply: “praise be to God.”
Strict guardianship laws, which mean that husbands or fathers can prevent their wives or daughters from leaving the home gave cover to the driving ban, which has long been accepted by many in the intensely conservative kingdom.
A committee formed by senior officials will now have 30 days to study how to implement the move.Saudi Arabia’s new Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, had viewed allowing women to drive as a key plank of reforms, insisting that the move would lead to higher female participation in the workforce and a breakdown of gender roles that limit social interaction between men and women outside immediate family environments.
However, the Crown Prince and his father, King Salman, had feared that moving too quickly on reforms would cause anger among the clerical establishment and elements of Saudi society who adhere to rigid interpretations of Sunni Islamic teachings that have taken root in large parts of the country over more than a century.
As well as being allowed to enter the National Stadium in Riyadh on Saturday to celebrate the 87th anniversary of the founding of the kingdom, women were also allowed to attend a concert in Jeddah.
In November 1990, 47 Saudi women drove their cars around Riyadh to protest the driving ban. They faced severe punishment at the time and the campaign died away until 2008, when Wajiha Huwaider dared to drive a car around the eastern provinces, escaping arrest.
From 2011 Sharif and another woman, Najla al-Hariri, became global figureheads of a cause that drew the attention of global leaders, who had urged the kingdom to overturn the ban.