Saudi Arabia’s surprise decision to grant women the right to drive in the conservative kingdom marks a significant expansion in women’s rights, but activists said Wednesday it is also only the first step in a long list of demands for equality.
Saudi Arabia was the only country in the world to ban women from driving, and nearly three decades ago women first began agitating for the right to drive, at times facing arrest for their protests and for getting behind the wheel.
The lifting of the ban, which comes into effect next summer, is the most dramatic step yet in a campaign by the king’s son, 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to modernize the kingdom. The young royal has been promoting change as needed to boost the country’s economy and ease international criticism, but he risks a backlash from powerful clerics from the ultraconservative Wahhabi interpretation of Islam.
As recently as 2013, dozens of women uploaded videos online of themselves behind the wheel of a car during a campaign launched by Saudi rights activists. Some videos showed families and male drivers giving women a “thumbs-ups,” suggesting many were ready for the change.
While women in other Muslim countries drove freely, the kingdom’s blanket ban attracted negative publicity. Neither Islamic law nor Saudi traffic law explicitly prohibited women from driving, but they were not issued licenses and were detained if they attempted to drive.
The decision late Tuesday to change course and grant women licenses was praised by the White House, which said President Donald Trump views the change as “a positive step toward promoting the rights and opportunities of women in Saudi Arabia.”
The secretary-general of the United Nations Antonio Guterres described it as “an important step in the right direction.” British Prime Minister Theresa May also hailed the decision, saying the empowerment of women around the world “is key to nations’ economic development.”
Prince Khaled bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Washington and the king’s son, said that letting women drive is a “huge step forward” and that “society is ready.”
“This is the right time to do the right thing,” he told reporters in the U.S. Women will be allowed to obtain licenses without the permission of a male relative.
Aziza Youssef, a professor at King Saud University and one of Saudi Arabia’s most vocal women’s rights activists, said women were “happy” but also that the change was “the first step in a lot of rights we are waiting for.”
“I am really excited. This is a good step forward for women’s rights,” she said speaking to The Associated Press from Saudi Arabia.
Saudi history offers many examples of women being punished simply for operating a vehicle.
In 1990, 50 women were arrested for driving and lost their passports and their jobs. More than 20 years later, a woman was sentenced in 2011 to 10 lashes for driving, though the late King Abdullah overturned the sentence.
As recently as late 2014, two Saudi women were detained for more than two months for defying the ban on driving when one of them attempted to cross the Saudi border with a license from neighboring United Arab Emirates in an act of defiance.
The decree indicated that women will not be allowed to drive immediately. A committee will be formed to look into how to implement the new order, which is slated to take effect in June 2018.
For years, the kingdom has incrementally granted women more rights and visibility, including participation in the Olympic Games in London and Rio, positions on the country’s top consultative council and the right to run and vote in local elections in 2015.
Despite these openings, Saudi women remain largely subject to the whims of men due to guardianship laws, which bar them from obtaining a passport, traveling abroad or marrying without the consent of a male relative. Women who attempt to flee abusive families have also faced imprisonment or been forced into shelters.
King Salman and his young son and heir, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, tested the waters over the weekend by allowing women into the country’s main stadium in Riyadh for annual celebrations of the nation’s founding. The stadium had previously been reserved for all-male crowds to watch sporting events.
Women and men also flooded a main street in the capital, bopping their heads to pop music as green lights flickered overhead in the color of the flag. The scene was shocking for a city in which gender segregation is strictly enforced and where women are seldom seen walking the streets, much less mixing in close quarters with males.
The 32-year-old crown prince has also opened the country to more entertainment, allowing musical concerts and even a Comic-Con event as part of a wide-ranging push to reform the economy and society. This year, the government announced that for the first time girls in public schools would be allowed to play sports and have access to physical education.
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The decree stated that the majority of Muslim scholars on the country’s highest clerical council agreed that Islam allows women the right to drive.
However, many of those same ultraconservative clerics, who wield power and influence in the judiciary and education sectors, have also spoken out in the past against women driving, playing sports or entering the workforce. They argue such acts corrupt society and lead to sin.
One Saudi cleric even stated in 2013 that driving could affect a woman’s ovaries and hurt her fertility. That same year, around 150 clerics and religious scholars held a rare protest outside the Saudi king’s palace against efforts by women seeking the right to drive.
Almost immediately after the news broke, an Arabic hashtag on Twitter was trending that said: “The women of my house won’t drive.”
Women in Saudi Arabia have long had to rely on male relatives to get to work or run errands, complicating government efforts to boost household incomes as lower oil prices force austerity measures. The more affluent have male drivers. In major cities, women can access ride-hailing apps such as Uber and Careem.
Saudi rights activist Sahar Nasief, who lives in in the Red Sea city of Jiddah, has for years been involved in the campaign for women to drive. She said she couldn’t believe the news when her son called to tell her. She immediately opened Saudi state TV to confirm if it was true.
“I am very optimistic about the future,” she said. “Things have to change. People are demanding it. Young people don’t want to live the way we lived. They want to live better. They want to live how other people are living.”
The Associated Press contributed to this article.