After countless years of the repression of women, Saudi Arabia took a progressive step forward after announcing the long awaited news on Sept. 26 that women will be able to legally drive. Though the decision will not take effect until June of 2018, this is a massive landmark in the conservative kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Though it is not technically illegal for women to drive, a religious edict known as a fatwa, banned the practice when it was issued in the early ’90s. The decision to reverse this edict came after Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud issued an order to kickstart women’s ability to acquire driver’s licenses, according to Saudi state media.
The Saudi Press Agency reported that the king weighed both the positives and negatives of the ban on women driving and confirmed that the law change was approved by a majority of the Council of Senior Scholars, Saudi Arabia’s highest religious body.
A short and precise tweet posted on Twitter by the kingdom’s Foreign Ministry stated, “Saudi Arabia allows women to drive.”
Preparations are now starting to be planned out on how to process the multitude of women who will be obtaining their licenses. According to a statement from Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Washington, D.C., preparations include “developing the infrastructure and institutional capacity, such as expanded licensing facilities and driver education programs to accommodate millions of new drivers.” A specific committee is being planned out that will have the designated job of enforcing the regulations.
Saudi Arabia was the last country in the world to allow women the freedom to drive. Saudi women face much oppression in their society as they operate under the male guardianship system.
“Under Saudi Arabia’s discriminatory male guardianship system, every woman must have a male guardian – a father, brother, husband, or even a son – who has the authority to make a range of critical decisions on her behalf,” stated the Human Rights Watch website. “Women are required to receive guardian approval to apply for a passport, travel outside the country, study abroad on a government scholarship, get married, or even exit prison.”
Even with all of these restrictions, Saudi women have been fighting for change over many years. A large part of the reason women are now allowed to drive is due to advocate groups like Women2Drive, a campaign in Saudi Arabia dedicated to giving women the legal right to drive.
In 2011, a Saudi woman named Manal al-Sharif recorded a video of herself driving a car and posted it to YouTube. According to an article by The Odyssey, Manal was driving in hopes of being spotted by police so that she could witness the actual process of being arrested for driving and find what the charges would be. Manal was jailed for nine days under no charges and had to have her father ask for a personal pardon from King Abdullah. There was also much international pressure on the situation as well, much of it coming from the Twitter hashtag #Women2Drive.
Just a month after Manal’s act of defiance, dozens of women drove in Saudi Arabia to protest the ban. The simple act of driving a car sparked a nationwide movement. Six years later, women are now free to drive.
“I reached a point in my life where I’d had enough of men controlling me,” she said. “I stopped asking for permission. If you change [a Saudi woman’s] mind-set– [if] she’s not weak, she doesn’t need permission– the people around her will change,” said Manal in a CNN article.