Ultraconservative Saudi Arabia has long been criticized for its repression of women under Shariah law. But Tuesday, King Salman decreed that effective next June, women will gain at least one privilege that has traditionally been reserved strictly for men: the ability to get a driver's license.
In a statement from the Saudi embassy, His Royal Highness Prince Khalid bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, Ambassador of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to the United States, said, “Saudi Arabia is changing. We have dynamic leadership. We are implementing our Vision2030 initiative through which we are empowering women and youth to play a greater role in the Saudi economy and take better advantage of the increasing opportunities that result from the Kingdom’s modernization and economic reform initiatives.”
Ambassador Khalid added, “The issue of women driving was never a religious or a cultural issue. In fact, the majority of the members of the Council of Senior Scholars in the Kingdom agree that Islam does not ban women from driving. This was a societal issue. Today, we have a young and vibrant society and the time had come to make this move."
Currently, women must rely on hiring men to drive them, often through ride-sharing services like Uber or Careem. Though women are allowed to work, the requirement to arrange rides for themselves costs a great deal of time and money, not to mention the fact that they are perfectly capable of driving themselves. In 2011, Manal al-Sharif posted a highly scandalous video to YouTube in which she drove a car herself to protest the repressive law.
King Salman's decree orders government agencies to prepare for millions of new license applicants. It is likely that the reason for the delay until June 2018 is so that these agencies have adequate time to make the necessary changes and increase staffing for the expected glut of woman drivers.
Saudi Arabia still has a long way to go toward equality among the sexes. But this is still an important leap forward for Saudi women.