After a history of female repression, Saudi Arabia has finally decided to allow its women to drive. The move is part of its Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s Vision 2030 plan to modernize Saudi society.

Mixed reviews

Since time immemorial, women have generally been regarded as the ‘weaker sex’, but in Saudi Arabia, they have always been treated that way too. Women aren’t allowed to date, or even be alone at home in the company of a man, without an older male or female relative being present. As per driving, the BBC says traditionalist views have centered on “females are too stupid to drive” or “driving will cause an abundance of and unnecessary intermingling of the sexes”.

Correspondents estimate there are nearly 800,000 imported chauffeurs from the south and south-east Asia, being used to drive women. These ladies’ families have no choice but to house, feed and insure the drivers, or face hefty fines and even jail. Following Tuesday’s announcement, many women and men rejoiced, both in Saudi Arabia and abroad. Scores took to social media using Twitter to hashtag “freedom at last”, “Saudi women can drive” and “I am my own guardian”. Religious conservatives, however, were furious and accused the Government of “bending the verses of Sharia”.

Still a long way to go

Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that forbids women from driving. Men are the only ones who can drive with licenses, and women who flout the law are arrested and fined.

The Saudi Press Agency (SPA) said: “the royal decree will implement the provisions of traffic regulations, including the issuance of driving licenses for men and women alike.” The new law also means that women will be able to take driving lessons without anyone’s permission and drive anywhere they wish. In spite of the announcement,however, many are wary that women will continue to be undermined in other ways.

They still need their male guardian’s permission to travel, seek and obtain employment, get married or divorced and even open a bank account. They are still forbidden from appearing in public without a full headpiece and black gown, known as an abaya. Up to 2013, women were not allowed to become lawyers and it was only in early 2017, that they were given the right to seek health care without their guardian’s consent.

The call for women to drive began in the 1990s with female activists insisting that they deserved equal rights and should not have to “suffer under the law”. But many Saudi Arabian clerics warned that allowing women behind the wheel would lead to “great sin and corrupt society.” Tuesday’s announcement does not take effect immediately because a special committee needs to determine how to implement the new order which is expected to be enacted in less than a year. For many, there is hope that as time goes by, women will continue to be given rights on par with their male counterparts.