The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia announced on Tuesday that it would allow women to drive, ending a longstanding policy that has become a global symbol of oppression frequently related to the kingdom. According to the Saudi Press Agency, government ministries are to prepare reports within 30 days, and the order will go into effect by June 2018.
The royal decree was announced live on state television, while a similar media event was simultaneously taking place in Washington. Saudi Arabia is the only country is the world that forbids women from driving. Under the current system, only men are allowed to drive inside the kingdom. Numerous women who have campaigned against this law over the past few years have been either arrested or heavily fined.
The Kingdom’s leadership hopes that the new law, once implemented, will help improve their image around the global, while simultaneously further encourage women to join the workforce. The current law forces Saudi women to hire drivers, or be driven around by their male relatives.
The Kingdom’s US Ambassador, Prince Khaled bin Salman, referred to the decision as “an historic and big day” and said it was, “the right decision at the right time.” He further confirmed that women will not be required to take permission from their male guardians to take driving lessons, and would be able to drive anywhere they liked. While the Ambassador insisted that the decision would not be reversed or seriously opposed, some are not so sure.
Given its strict guardianship laws that give men power over their female relatives, this is a huge step for Saudi Arabia. The guardianship laws prevent women from being able to travel abroad, work, or undergo medical procedures without the consent of their male guardians, be it a husband, a father or even a son.
Over the years, many Saudi clerics and officials have provided a range of reasons for refuting women’s right to drive. Some said that it was inappropriate for women to drive in Saudi culture, while others claimed that female drivers would be a distraction for men on the road. Still others used the female anatomy to justify the unreasonable ban, with one cleric claiming that driving harmed women’s ovaries.
Rights groups have long campaigned for the ban to be lifted, and the announcement was met with jubilation by many. Manal Al-Sharif, a Saudi women’s rights advocate who filmed herself driving in 2011 and posted the footage on YouTube in protest against the ban, celebrated the announcement on Tuesday.
You want a statement here is one: “Saudi Arabia will never be the same again. The rain begins with a single drop” #Women2Drive❤️
— منال مسعود الشريف (@manal_alsharif) September 26, 2017
The Secretary General of the United Nations, Antonion Guterres, welcomed the decision as a step in the right direction.
I welcome Saudi Arabia’s decision to lift the ban on women drivers. An important step in the right direction.
— António Guterres (@antonioguterres) September 27, 2017
Other prominent voices from around the world chimed in with support and happiness at the change in events.
I am actually incredibly proud of the brave activists in Saudi Arabia who have been fighting hard for women’s rights there. It matters.
— Shaun King (@ShaunKing) September 26, 2017
Still enormous steps that need to be taken, but this is a good day for the people of Saudi Arabia. https://t.co/h4yf5LYShL
— Green Party Canada (@CanadianGreens) September 26, 2017
While the world celebrates, the announcement was met with mixed reactions from inside the Kingdom itself. Ending the ban on women drivers is expected to be met with some resistance in the highly patriarchal country, and men have voiced concerns about their female relatives becoming stranded should their cars break down. To counter inherent patriarchal attitudes, the official decree stated that a high level ministerial committee was being formed to study other issues that needed to be address for the change to be implemented properly. An example, police personnel will have to be trained to interact with women, something they are rarely called to do in Saudi Arabia, where men and women who are not related have little contact with one another. The official decree further stated that the majority of the Council of Senior Scholars – whose members are appointed by the king himself – had agreed that the government could allow women to drive if done in accordance with Shariah Law.