At last, Saudi Arabian women can get behind the wheel

27 September 2017

Saudi Arabia announced on Tuesday that it would allow women to drive, ending a policy that has become a global symbol of the oppression of women.

The change, which will take effect in June 2018, was announced in a royal decree read live on state television and in a simultaneous media event in Washington. The decision puts into the spotlight the damage that the ban on women driving has done to the kingdom's international reputation.

The kingdom has been widely criticised for being the only country in the world that bans women from driving, despite gradual improvement on some women's issues in recent years.

Saudi leaders also hope the new policy will help the economy by increasing women's participation in the workplace. Many working Saudi women spend much of their salaries on drivers or must be driven to work by male relatives.

''It is amazing,'' said Fawziah al-Bakr, a Saudi university professor who was among 47 women who participated in the kingdom's first protest against the ban - in 1990. After driving around the Saudi capital, Riyadh, the women were arrested and some lost their jobs.

''Since that day, Saudi women have been asking for the right to drive, and finally it arrived,'' she told The New York Times by phone. ''We have been waiting for a very long time.''

US President Donald Trump commended the decision of long-time US ally Saudi Arabia to allow women to drive in the ultra-conservative kingdom, describing it as a "positive step".

Trump "commends" the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia's decision today to affirm the right of women to drive in the Kingdom, the White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said.

"This is a positive step toward promoting the rights and opportunities of women in Saudi Arabia," Sanders said.

"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," she said in a statement.

The US alliance with the ultra-conservative kingdom has often given rise to criticism that the superpower chooses its friends and enemies according to self-interest rather than on principle.

"We're happy. We're certainly happy to hear that. If Saudi women are now able to drive, certainly here in the United States we would certainly welcome that. It's a great step in the right direction for that country," State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert told reporters at her news conference.

Amnesty International welcomed the Saudi decision.

"It is a testament to the bravery of women activists who have been campaigning for years that the government of Saudi Arabia has finally relented and decided to permit women to drive," said Philip Luther, Amnesty International's research and advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa.

''If by June next year women in Saudi Arabia are driving the streets without fear of arrest, then this will be a cause for celebration. But it is just one step.

"We also need to see a whole range of discriminatory laws and practices swept away in Saudi Arabia, including the guardianship system where every woman has a male guardian, be it their father, brother, husband or son, having authority to make decisions on her behalf," Luther said.

Saudi Arabia, home to Islam's holiest sites, is an absolute monarchy ruled according to Shariah law. Saudi officials and clerics have provided numerous explanations for the ban over the years.

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

In 2014, Loujain Hathloul was arrested after trying to cross the border from the United Arab Emirates into Saudi Arabia and detained for 73 days.

''@LoujainHathloul I'm so proud of you,'' Fahad Albuteiri, her husband and a well-known Saudi comedian, wrote on Twitter.

Hathloul tweeted a simple reaction to the news: ''Thank god.''

The momentum to change the policy picked up in recent years with the rise of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the king's 32-year-old son, who has laid out a far-reaching plan to overhaul the kingdom's economy and society.

Increasing numbers of women are working in a growing number of professions, and in 2015, women were allowed to vote and to run for seats on the kingdom's local councils.

Many Saudis remain deeply conservative, and social strictures like the driving ban have been reinforced over the years by the kingdom's top clerics, many of them on the government payroll.

But there was little public dissent on Tuesday, likely because the Saudi government often exerts pressure on prominent voices to make sure they either back the government line or keep quiet. In recent weeks it has arrested more than two dozen clerics, academics and others, accusing them of being foreign-funded dissidents.

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