Saudi women get the luxury of being behind the wheel from next June
RIYADH,Sept27: Saudi King Salman on Tuesday ordered that women be allowed to drive from next June, in a historic decision that makes the ultra-conservative kingdom the last country in the world to permit women behind the wheel.
The longstanding driving ban was seen globally as a symbol of repression of women in the Gulf kingdom and comes after a years-long resistance from female activists.
The decision, which risks riling religious conservatives, is part of Saudi Arabia’s ambitious reform push aimed at adapting to a post-oil era and improving its battered global reputation for its human rights record.
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 highlights the damage that the ban on women driving has done to the kingdom’s international reputation and its hopes for a public relations benefit from the reform.
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 said by phone. “We have been waiting for a very long time.”
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.
Some said that it was inappropriate in Saudi culture for women to drive, or that male drivers would not know how to handle having 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.
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.