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Saudi women will be allowed to drive in the kingdom in 2018

In this March 29, 2014, file photo, Aziza Yousef drives a car on a highway in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, as part of a campaign to defy Saudi Arabia's ban on women driving. Saudi Arabia says it will allow women to drive for the first time in the ultraconservative kingdom. The kingdom, which announced the change on Sept. 26, 2017, was the only country in the world to bar women from driving and for years had garnered negative publicity internationally for detaining women who defied the ban. (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali, File)

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — 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 (Sept. 27) 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 goes 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-up,” 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 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.

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 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 where gender segregation is strictly enforced and where women are seldom seen walking the streets, much less mixing in close quarters with males.

The 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.

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 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.”

(Batrawy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates)

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23 Comments

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  • This coming from a religion (yours) that views men as the head of women and limits their participation in their faith. But much better than Saudi Arabia.

  • 1 Corinthians 11:13 – English Standard Version

    But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.

    says nothing about driving cars, Jim

  • Re: “[1 Cor 11:13] says nothing about driving cars, Jim’ 

    No, but it does dictate that wives are to be in subjection to their husbands. In other words, they aren’t the equals of men. You missed Jim’s point — purposely, I suspect. 

  • That’s not true at all — and you know it. Please stop telling me that words (e.g. “the head of a wife is her husband”) don’t mean what they obviously mean. I have no idea how stupid you think I am, but please just stop already and admit the truth. Try it, just once. It won’t hurt you … I promise! 

  • I’m sorry that you have such difficulties with understanding. Perhaps learn about Christians before condemning them. Try it!

  • I don’t need to learn about Christians. I was one, once. That’s why I know your games for what they are. I know your lies to be the lies they are.

  • Your attempt to use the “No True Scotsman” appeal is noted, but dismissed as fallacious

    I was, in fact, a Christian. Raised Catholic, I later became a Protestant fundamentalist. Later on, I became the cynical, cold-hearted, godless agnostic heathen I am now. And yes, I actually was a committed Christian, having totally accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and savior, your belief to the contrary notwithstanding. As it turns out, Ms Luckins, you don’t get a vote as to whether or not I had been “a ‘Real’ Christian.” You just don’t. I was one, that’s a fact, and I really don’t give a crap if you don’t want to hear it. You didn’t know me then and have no basis for your conclusion that I wasn’t one — and that’s just how it is. 

  • You’ve tried that comment on me, repeatedly. Here is my secular response.

    “John: Members of the UbaTuba White Men’s Club are upstanding citizens of the community.
    Marvin: Then why are there so many of these members in jail?
    John: They were never true UbaTuba White Men’s Club members.
    Marvin: What’s a true UbaTuba White Men’s Club member?
    John: Those who don’t go to jail.”

  • when this is mention in islam
    woman isnt alloed to drive in sudia arabia to traditions not toreligous
    I live near theirand I know how they think and beleive me women will not drive for long long time

  • woman will not drive in sudia arabia
    believe me I live their and I know how they think and even if they ride it will make a lot of problems realy alot of one

  • When your brand of Christians are behaving, they’re Christians.
    When your brand of Christians lie, cheat, steal, and abuse suddenly they aren’t Christians? Is this your reasoning? If it is then THIS is then you understand why I walked away from man made/organized religion. The religious practices of the tribes native to my part of my state care more for the souls of all on this earth. Definitely more respectful.

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