On Tuesday, Saudi King Salman ended a conservative tradition by allowing women to drive cars. He has terminated an emblem of the Islamic kingdom's repression of women. The country was criticized worldwide as the sole country to ban women from driving despite its governments recent initiatives to improve women's issues and increase their public role in the workforce. The move will help Saudi Arabia remove a stain from its image and give it a more modern vibe.
The state news agency SPA stated of the royal decree ordering the forming of a ministerial body within a month to give advice and make the order effective by June 24, 2018 while adhering to the necessary Sharia standards i.e. the Islamic law. The majority of the Council of Senior Religious Scholars, Saudi Arabia's top clerical body, had approved the permission. Within an hour of the announcement, a jubilant Saudi ambassador to Washington, Prince Khaled bin Salman called it a historic and big day for the kingdom as well as an indication that they are ready for the change. Worldwide congratulations poured inside the Kingdom. The US State Department praised it as 'a great step in the right direction'.
For over 25 years, women activists have campaigned for this right with their protests getting them arrested as well as harassed. Once arrested in 2011 for the same, activist Manal al-Sherif twitted her relief and happiness over the order. Latifa al-Shaalan, a member of the Shura Council, an advisory body called the decision as historic and a move to strengthen women's employment in the private sector.
Saudi Arabian women legally require a male guardian who approves even their basic decisions including education, employment, marriage, travel plans and even medical treatment. They are bound by law to wear long robes and a headscarf and require their male guardians consent for most legal actions. Ambassador Prince Khaled stated that the guardian's consent would not be required for their driving license and they can drive freely even in Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Women with a license in any of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries can drive freely though the Interior Ministry but still needs to decide on their being professional drivers. Jane Kinninmont, senior research fellow at Chatham House called it the biggest overnight win for Saudi Arabia in terms of international PR.
Both the late King Abdullah and King Salman had been steadily improving women's position in Saudi Arabia through various government modernizing reforms. It has also sparked tensions with influential clerics whose support is crucial for ruling family. Through Twitter, many critics accused the government of 'bending the verses of Sharia'. On being questioned about conservative backlash, the ambassador stated that regardless of it, they would be moving forward. He further added that it is not necessary for women to drive but now they have that choice. Many of the country's powerful and austere Sunni Muslim clergy are against the order stating that it would let females mingle with unrelated men which would inevitably breach strict gender segregation rules.
The decision would also have economic impacts as women can now reach the workplace without a driver. It would also impact the popularity of car-hailing apps like Uber and Careem. Prince Khaled called the decision as both social and economic reform.