On 26 September 2017, Saudi Arabia lifted the ban on women drivers, ending an age-old law on women that has transformed itself into a global symbol of oppression of women. The change was announced in a royal decree read live on state television and in a media event in Washington. Furthermore, the change will take effect in June 2018.
The main reason to lift the ban was that of the damage the ban had made to the reputation of Saudi Arabia and its hopes for a public relations benefit from the reform. Saudi leaders hope that the new policy will help the economy by boosting women’s participation in the workplace. Majority of the Saudi working women spend their salaries on drivers or must be driven to work.
Fawziah-al-Bakr, a Saudi university professor said “It is amazing”. In 1990, Fawziah-al-Bakr was among the 47 women who participated in Saudi Arabia’s first protest against the ban. After the women drove around the Saudi capital, Riyadh, they were arrested and some lost their jobs. Since 1990, Saudi women have been asking for the right to drive, and in 2017 it finally happened.
Saudi Arabia is monarchy ruled according to Shariah law. Saudi clerics and officials have provided n explanations for the ban over the years. Some explain 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. On the other hand, others argued that permitting women to drive would end up with promiscuity and the conclusion of the Saudi family. One cleric stated with no evidence that driving harmed women’s ovaries.
The rise of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the king’s 32 year old son has planned out to overhaul Saudi economy and society. There has been an increasing number of women working in different fields, and in 2015, women were permitted to vote and run for seats in Saudi Arabia’s local councils.
Ending the ban on women driving will spark some resistance inside Saudi Arabia since families are highly patriarchal. Moreover, in a small news conference at the Saudi embassy in Washington, an enthusiastic Prince Khalid bin Salman, the Saudi ambassador, states that women would be able to obtain driver’s licenses without asking permission from their husbands, fathers or male guardian. Even though the “guardianship” law gives men power over their female relatives.
The ambassador further stated that women would be allowed to drive alone but the Interior Ministry would decide whether they could work as professional drivers or not. Many professionals and young people in Saudi will welcome the change, seeing it as a step to making life in the country better.
Manal al Sharif, a Saudi women’s rights advocate celebrated the announcement on 26 September 2017.
Ms. Sharif has organized groups of women for collective protests to demand an end to the driving ban on female drivers. She was arrested at the time for protesting, and later wrote a book about her experiences. She now currently lives in Australia. However, even though the ban has been lifted, the main goal is now to end the guardianship laws.