Saudi Arabia announced on Tuesday that it would allow women to drive, ending a longstanding policy that has become a global symbol of the repression of women in the ultraconservative kingdom.
The change, which will take effect in June of next year, was announced on state television and in a simultaneous media event in Washington. The decision highlights the damage that the no-driving policy has done to the kingdom’s international reputation and its hopes for a public relations benefit from the reform.
Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, is a Muslim monarchy ruled according to Shariah law. Saudi officials and clerics have provided numerous explanations for the ban over the years.
Some said that it was inappropriate in Saudi culture for women to drive, or that male drivers would not know how to handle women in cars next to them. Others argued that allowing women to drive would lead to promiscuity and the collapse of the Saudi family. One cleric claimed — with no evidence — that driving harmed women’s ovaries.
Rights groups have long campaigned for the ban to be overturned, and some women have been arrested and jailed for defying the prohibition and taking the wheel.
ed up in recent years with the rise of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a 32-year-old son of the king who has laid out a far-reaching plan to overhaul the kingdom’s economy and society.
The change could face some resistance inside the kingdom, where families are highly patriarchal and some men say they worry about their female relatives getting stranded should their cars break down.
So-called “guardianship” laws give men power over their female relatives, with women unable to travel abroad, work or undergo some medical procedures without the consent of their male “guardian,” often a father, a husband or even a son. While their enforcement has loosened in recent years, there is little to stop a Saudi man from greatly limiting the movements of his wives or daughters should he choose to do so.