Saudi Arabia officials announced on Thursday that women will finally be allowed to drive in the country, thus ending a legislation that symbolized the repression of women in the Muslim kingdom.

Women will be able to drive in Saudi Arabia by June next year, according to officials. The news was simultaneously announced on state television and in a media event in Washington.

Saudi women driving a car as a sign of protest in 2014. Image credit: AP
Saudi women driving a car as a sign of protest in 2014. Image credit: AP

Experts argue that the decision highlights the kingdom’s need to regain approval from the international community, as Saudi Arabia has been widely criticized for its decades-long policy. The Muslim monarchy would also expect public relations benefits from the decision.

Saudi Prince says ‘there’s no wrong time to do the right thing’

Saudi Arabia is a Muslim monarchy ruled according to Sharia law. The country is one of the most conservative nations of the world, as it is the birthplace of Islam. Women are banned from doing several things in the country, and the no-driving policy was one of the nation’s most severe laws.

Saudi clerics and officials have shared numerous reasons for the veto over the years. Some argued that it was inappropriate in Saudi culture for women to drive, noting that male drivers wouldn’t know how to handle women in cars next to them. Other officials said that allowing female drivers would surely lead to promiscuity and the collapse of the Saudi family. Moreover, another cleric claimed that driving harmed women’s ovaries.

The mind-boggling reasons are not enough to keep women from driving, obviously, and rights groups have campaigned for the ban to be overturned for years. In fact, several women have even been jailed for protesting the measure by driving.

However, it seems as if the monarchy is finally willing to let go the outdated and discriminatory policy. Saudi ambassador to Washington Prince Khaled bin Salman described Tuesday’s announcement as a “historic and big day in our kingdom.”

“Our leadership thinks that this is the right time to do this change because currently in Saudi Arabia we have a young, dynamic, open society,” Prince bin Salman told reporters, according to Reuters. “There’s no wrong time to do the right thing.”

The news was welcomed by members of the international community, who nodded the Muslim kingdom for revoking the ban. The U.S. State Department described the move as “a great step in the right direction.”

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman continues taking his country into the future

Saudi Arabia, as of Monday, was the only country in the world who still banned women from driving. While women have been protesting the measure for the last 25 years, nothing seemed to change the rulers’ mind on the matter.

However, as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman rose to power in recent years, officials have been attempting to soften some of their policies to gain worldwide approval. The prince, a 32-year old son of the king, has been implementing a plan to improve the kingdom’s economy and society.

Experts say the end of the no-driving ban could face some resistance inside the kingdom, where most families are patriarchal and some men argue that they worry about their female relatives getting stranded if their cars were to break down.

The change will not be seen until June 24, 2018, though. The kingdom’s state media agency SPA reported that the royal decree ordered the formation of a ministerial body to give advice within 30 days and then implement the order next year.

The decree said the change must “apply and adhere to necessary Sharia standards.” While it gave no further details, it did say a majority of the Council of Senior Religious Scholars, the kingdom’s top clerical body, had approved its permissibility.

Some denounce Saudi government for change but most praise the ‘victory’

Other laws in Saudi Arabia, often referred to as “guardianship” laws, give men power over their female relatives, with women unable to travel, work or get medical treatment without the consent of their male “guardian,” which can be a father, a husband, or a son. Needless to say, women embraced the new measure around the kingdom, as they have fought for their right to drive tirelessly.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is implementing plan to change the kingdom's economy and society. Image credit: Arabia Watch
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is implementing a plan to improve the kingdom’s economy and society. Image credit: Arabia Watch

Latifa al-Shaalan, a member of an advisory body, the Shura Council, praised the news and said the change would strengthen women’s employment in the private sector.

“This is a historic day and I cannot find the words to express my feelings and the feelings of thousands of Saudi women,” she said on Arabiya TV, according to Reuters.

While many welcomed the change, some criticized it. Some took Twitter to denounce Saudi Arabia for revoking the ban, accusing its leaders of “bending the verses of Sharia.” They said that Sharia scholars have long said it was haram (forbidden) for women to drive, and it couldn’t have suddenly become halal (permissible).

Nevertheless, the change was welcomed, especially among younger Saudis, who acknowledge Prince Mohammed for taking a central place in running a kingdom whose patriarchal traditions have, for years, blocked women’ and youth’s progress.

“Oh my God, this is amazing. Ever since Mohammed bin Salman’s rise, he has fast-tracked all the changes that are needed for our country,” said 35-year-old Marwa Afandi, an event planner from the Red Sea city of Jeddah. “Congratulations to all my ladies, this is a real victory.”

Source: The New York Times