Women in Saudi Arabia have been celebrating the news that they will finally be able to drive, a landmark step that brings the conservative kingdom in line with the rest of the world and will allow many more women to work.
The Saudi Foreign ministry announced Tuesday that a royal decree has been issued that will allow women to drive by next June.
“This is a historic big day in our kingdom,” Prince Khaled bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador to the US, said Tuesday in a briefing with reporters.
The move follows years of activism and appeals both from within and outside the Gulf nation.
Kholoud Attar, a 32-year-old Saudi designer and magazine owner, who has been running her business for 10 years, told CNN the change would make a “huge difference” both to her and to her female employees.
“Being able to drive really facilitates a lot of logistics and helps with shaving off the time to get things done,” she said. “It’s so thrilling to be able to do this.”
For her female workers, the biggest gain will be in not having to pay for a driver or other transportation out of their salaries, Attar said. Employing a driver currently eats up a third of the average monthly salary for her staff members, who may also have to find the money for their children’s care or education, she said.
As for those who remain opposed to women driving, Attar said, their voices “just became much quieter” thanks to the government saying it would be allowed.
‘Huge battle won’
Madeha al Ajroush who in 1990 along with 46 other women dismissed their drivers and got behind the wheels of cars in downtown Riyadh but fired from their jobs and denounced in local newspapers, took to Twitter to celebrate the decision.
“We are finally allowed to drive!!!! Congratulations to the Saudi women.
“The will for women to drive has finally come. We, the Saudi women have the freedom of mobility,” madeha al ajroush (@madehaAlajrous) said.
Other activists who took part in the protests celebrated the announcement by tweeting out a list of the women who defied the government rule against women behind the wheel.
Manal al-Sharif was caught driving in May 2011. She spent nine days in prison. “As a result of my protest, I was threatened — imams wanted me to be publicly lashed — and monitored and harassed,” Sharif wrote in a first-person account in the New York Times. On Tuesday, she wrote on Twitter, “Saudi Arabia will never be the same again. The rain begins with a single drop.”
Loujain al-Hathloul, detained for 73 days in 2014 after attempting to drive into Saudi Arabia from the United Arab Emirates, was more concise. “Praise be to God,” she wrote on the social-media platform.
What a day for @fawziah1, @Hessahalsheikh, @madehaAlajrous and the other 44 Saudi women who took part in the first driving protest in 1990,”Ahmed Al Omran (@ahmed), tweeted.
Manal al-Sharif, one of the women behind the Women2Drive campaign in Saudi Arabia, said the magnitude of the decision to allow women to drive “won’t make sense” to those outside the country, “but if you live in Saudi Arabia, it’s a huge battle that was won today.”
She celebrated the victory Tuesday by posting a photo on Twitter of herself behind the wheel of a car.
Sharif, who now lives in Australia, was jailed in Saudi Arabia 2011 after posting a video on YouTube of herself driving a car. The act provoked death threats and spurred her to start the campaign.
Speaking to CNN from Australia, she hailed Saudi Arabia’s “new leadership” as young and “courageous.” There will be a “huge backlash” from “the extremist Islamists in my country,” she said. “It won’t go unnoticed.”
Economic stagnation, she said, was a big impetus for the decision.
“They cannot afford keeping the women in the back seat. They want to make women fully involved in the economy, and you can’t do that — you can’t assign a woman to be in a political position or in a government position, and she still can’t drive her own car.”
…Country appoints first spokeswoman
Saudi Arabia appointed its first female spokesperson ever at its embassy in Washington, hours after Saudi women were granted the right to drive.
“Proud to serve the @SaudiEmbassyUSA as the spokeswoman. I’m grateful for the opportunity, the support, and well wishes,” the spokeswoman, Fatimah Baeshen, wrote on Twitter.
Baeshen previously worked at the ministries of labour and economy between 2014 and 2017, according to the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya broadcaster.
She also worked as a consultant at the World Bank and the Islamic Development Bank.
On Tuesday, King Salman ordered the Interior Ministry to give “licences to women and men equally.”
The move, which will go into effect in June, comes after Saudi women and international rights groups have for several years campaigned to lift the ban, which was condemned as a symbol of oppression.
Saudi Arabia is dominated by the puritanical Wahhabi school of Islam, but the kingdom has been introducing slow-paced change.
Saudi women were allowed to vote and run as candidates in the municipal elections for the first time in 2015.
King Salman recently ordered an end to the long-standing guardianship rule, which denied women access to government services if they did not have a male relative’s consent.
However, women continue to require a male guardian’s approval to travel abroad or get married.