Elizabeth Wells looks at the recent decree by Saudi Arabia’s King on female drivers.

 

Saudi Arabia will grant women the right to obtain a driver’s licence, according to a royal decree issued by King Salaman on Tuesday, 26th September. The reform is expected to take effect by June of next year, ending Saudi’s reign as the only country in the world to deny women the right to drive.

A ministerial committee of senior official has been designated to take recommendations and make provisions to establish the exact parameters of the decree in accordance to Shariah, or Islamic, law within the following thirty days. According to a statement from Prince Khalid bin Salman bin Abdulaziz to Washington, D.C., women will not require a male guardian’s permission to obtain a licence, nor will they need to be accompanied by a guardian in the car.

The announcement signifies a huge step forward for women’s rights activists who have long protested the restrictions, many of whom were jailed for their actions.

Saudi clerics explanations of the sanctions have ranged from men not knowing how to react to women on the road to one cleric’s unsupported claim that driving causes damage to a women’s ovaries.

Manal al-Sharif, a leading Saudi activist for women’s rights, was imprisoned in 2011 for posting an 8-minute video online of herself driving in protest. Following the announcement of the decree, she tweeted: “You want a statement here is one: ‘Saudi Arabia will never be the same again. The rain begins with a single drop’ #Women2Drive.”

While the decree serves as a monumental advancement for women across the country, it is also expected to promote the Saudi Arabian economy by allowing women to fully participate in the workforce. Many women have had to hire private drivers and allocate a significant part of their paychecks just to transportation, not only lowering the incentive to work but also tying up money that could be put back into the economy. An estimated 800,000 foreign chauffeurs currently work in Saudi Arabia, according to the BBC.

The lift of the ban falls in line with Vision 2030, the economic reform plan of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The Saudi Arabian economy has suffered from lowering oil prices, and the plan highlights the importance of promoting women in the workforce to boost economic growth.

The decree has been met with praise from around the globe. “Women being able to apply for a driver’s licence in Saudi Arabia, and subsequently drive, is a long-awaited milestone in the [country], that puts them at par with their male counterparts in this one area of public life and gives them a right to a life-saving skill that they should never have been denied,” said Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the Executive Director of United Nation’s Women.

“The ability to move independently within their country is a vital step to the other freedoms that are their right as economic, political and social actors, and that bring benefits to all of society,” she said.

It is unsure if the decree will face backlash from Saudi conservatives, but no major opposition has yet been reported.

“I think our leadership understands our society is ready,” Prince Khalid bin Salman bin Abdulaziz told reporters, according to both the Guardian and the New York Times.