For numerous women in Saudi Arabia chafing under the restrictive regulations of one of the most patriarchal and socially repressive countries in the world, being able to drive a car would seem like the ultimate expression freedom. In the face of advancing modernity and the future they have waited rather patiently for the kingdom to have a change of heart and give them that liberty. But when women need the presence or permission of a male relative or guardian to do much of anything, waiting for a chance to do something solo must seem to take forever; but not anymore. The King of Saudi Arabia has issued a decree that many women in his country have been waiting to hear: they can drive.
On Tuesday, September 26, King Salman announced a royal decree giving women in Saudi Arabia the freedom to drive vehicles. The statement also talks about how the long period of denying this right has significantly soured the ultraconservative Kingdom’s reputation in the international community, and speaks its hope that granting this liberty will help with their relations to other nations.
Over the past months Saudi Arabia has been engaging in a wide range of sweeping reforms tied to Vision 2030, a development program that means to diversify the Middle Eastern country’s products and manufacture in order to wean their economic dependency off of the steadily depleting world fossil fuel supply. Part of the reforms the royal government is promoting is the encouragement of women to begin participating in the workplace with new job opportunities being allowed to them.
While this has been perceived as a positive, the initiative has been hobbled by the limited mobility afforded to women, who would need to be chauffeured around by male relatives or hired drivers in order to go to work. The only other vehicular restriction that has been lifted from Saudi women has been allowing them to ride bicycles back in 2013.
Under the guidelines of King Salman’s decree, full freedom to drive cars for women will be implemented completely by June of 2018. It was met with great praise in Washington, capital of Saudi Arabia’s primary western ally the United States. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert described it as a “great step in the right direction.”
Passing of the freedom to drive has been mostly accredited to Mohammed bin Salman, former Saudi Minister of Defense and now Crown Prince and heir to his uncle King Salman. The progressive-minded prince is seen as having successfully asserted his authority over traditional Islamic clerics who are among the bitterest opponents of the measure, mostly for cultural considerations but also for flimsy reasons (one cleric claimed scientific proof that women driving cars damaged their ovaries).
To prepare for the full implementation next year, the king is calling for a high-level committee to study what changes in public interactions must be made to ease the transition of women drivers on the streets of Saudi Arabia.
Photo courtesy Star Tribune