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Saudi Arabia has long been the only country in the world that legally bars women from driving.
But now, that’s about to change.
On September 26th, Saudi King Salman ended an internationally-criticized conservative tradition when he issued a decree allowing women to obtain drivers licenses in his country.
The birthplace of Islam and home to its holiest sites, Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy, ruled by a king whose decrees must comply with Islamic Sharia law. The Quran—Islam’s sacred text—is the country’s constitution and the beating heart of its government, cultural norms, and social policies.
The interpretation of the Quran lies at the heart of the enormous gender divide in the country. Many laws which bar women from certain activities are meant to avoid free mixing between men and women in order to maintain modesty and minimize what is considered inappropriate or obscene contact.
Arguments from Islamic clerics and government officials against female driving privileges have, over the years, ranged from the idea that men would not know how to handle seeing women in cars next to them in traffic, to fears of rising promiscuity and the collapse of the Saudi family structure, to the idea that the female brain is “smaller” than that of a man.
For these reasons, women in Saudi Arabia do not enjoy many of the same legal and social freedoms as men. Many spend a large portion of their salaries on the country’s large number of foreign chauffeurs, or are forced to ask male relatives to drive them to work. Otherwise, they’re stranded.
But the rise of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, casually known as “MBS,” has brought a wave of change rippling through the country, thanks to his efforts to revitalize its economy through a program called Vision 2030. This program’s goal is to bring Saudi society more in line with the rest of the modern world.
“We are trying to increase women’s participation in the workforce,” bin Salman told the press. “In order to change women’s participation in the workforce, we need them to be able to drive to work.”
This change has come with a host of others. In recent years, women in Saudi Arabia have been allowed to run for positions on the kingdom’s municipal councils, and have, for the first time, been allowed to enter a sports stadium.
But the path to the independent travel hasn’t been easy for the women of Saudi Arabia. Since 1990, women have protested the driving ban, driving around the Saudi capital, Riyadh or posting photos of themselves driving on social media. These activists have been met with lost jobs, travel restrictions, and jail time.
The lifting of the ban, which will be carried out by June 24th, 2018, has caused a wave of international support to pour in over social media channels, congratulating Saudi women on their newfound freedom and encouraging them to keep pushing for further reform.
The US state department called the move “a great step in the right direction.” The White House, too, signaled its support, releasing a statement saying that “We will continue to support Saudi Arabia in its to efforts to strengthen Saudi society and the economy through reforms like this and the implementation of Saudi Vision 2030.”
The licensing of Saudi women isn’t without its opponents, and tensions are rising amongst influential conservative clerics in the country. There has been pushback on social media, with one critic accusing the Saudi government of “bending the verses of Sharia.” Another wrote that “As far as I remember, Sharia scholars have said it was haram for women to drive. How come it has suddenly become halal?”
Amongst fears of inappropriate male and female interaction, cultural pushback stands only to increase as the date of the actual legislation nears.
But with this change has also come louder calls for further positive reform. Saudi women still can’t get a passport, open a bank account, get a loan, divorce, or marry without the approval of a male guardian. They also cannot socialize outside of their immediate families or receive equal inheritance. All of these customs and laws are now in the crosshairs of Saudi activists.
The ability to legally drive may just put Saudi Arabia’s women on the road to equality as the country strives to change some of its most engrained customs. This may represent a baby step in terms of equality, but it is a step in the right direction.
“It is amazing,” one Saudi university professor—a woman who participated in the first protest against the ban in 1990—told the New York Times. “Since that day, Saudi women have been asking for the right to drive, and finally it arrived. We have been waiting for a very long time.”
That time has finally come.