Jeddah: Saudi Arabia announced on Tuesday that it would allow women to drive for the first time, in a royal decree King Salman abolished the longstanding ban in the ultraconservative kingdom.
The Gulf kingdom is the only country in the world that bans women from driving. Until now, only men were allowed licenses and women who drove in public risked being arrested and fined.
The change will take effect from June 2018, the decree referred to the “negative effects of not allowing women to drive vehicles, and the positive effects envisaged from allowing them to do so” within the context of Islamic law.
Pointing to the agreement of majority of Council of Senior Scholars, decree says, “The scholars see no reason not to allow women to drive as long as there are legal and regulatory guarantees to avoid the pretexts (that those against women driving had in mind), even if they are unlikely to happen”.
The king instructed the Interior Ministry to apply traffic regulations, including the issuance of driving licenses, equally to both men and women.
The move was announced on state television and also by the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs. According to royal decree, a high-level ministerial committee will be formed to study the necessary steps needed to implement the regulations. For example, the police will have to be trained to interact with women in a way that they rarely do in Saudi Arabia, a society where men and women who are not related have little contact.
“The committee must submit its recommendations within 30 days. The implementation — God willing — will be from Shawwal 10, 1439 (corresponding to June 24, 2018) and in accordance with rules and regulations, and the completion of the necessary steps,” said the decree.
Praise for the move has been pouring in from inside the Saudi kingdom, as well as around the world. US President Donald Trump said it was a “positive step” towards promoting women’s rights.
Manal al-Sharif, an organiser of the Women2Drive campaign who has also been imprisoned for driving, said on Twitter that Saudi Arabia would “never be the same again”.
Although 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.
The momentum to change the policy picked up in recent years with the rise of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the king’s 32-year-old son, who has laid out a far-reaching plan to overhaul the kingdom’s economy and society.
Increasing numbers of women are working in a growing number of professions, and in 2015, women were allowed to vote and to run for seats on the kingdom’s local councils.