Women in Saudi Arabia will be permitted to drive in the kingdom, according to a royal decree issued in Riyadh on Tuesday that overturned one of the most widely criticized restrictions on human rights.
The decree, signed by King Salman and broadcast on state television, said that the “majority of senior scholars” had deemed the change legitimate under Sharia law, and ordered applicable government ministries to make whatever legal adjustments are required to implement it by next June.
The change aligns Saudi Arabia with virtually every other country in the world, including other conservative monarchies in the Persian Gulf region that have long allowed more freedom for women.
It was unclear how the permission to drive would relate to other remaining restrictions, including laws requiring women to be accompanied by a male “guardian” when leaving their homes.
Several prominent female Saudi activists had spent years publicly protesting the driving ban, posting videos of themselves driving on Saudi roads or headed toward its borders. The videos garnered hundreds of thousands of views and quickly landed the activists in prison.
One of the activists, Manal al-Sharif, was arrested in May of 2011 as a grassroots Saudi campaign to overturn the ban gathered momentum, and 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 of her arrest and exile from Saudi Arabia, that appeared in June in the New York Times.
Other activists also faced long term harassment for defying the ban. Loujain al-Hathloul, who was detained for 73 days in 2014 after attempting to drive into Saudi Arabia from the UAE, was rearrested earlier this year and held for several days. Shortly before her arrest, she said in an interview with the Post that she had not tried to drive since her arrest three years ago.
On Tuesday, following the news that the ban had been overturned, Sharif, in a Twitter post, wrote that “Saudi Arabia will never be the same again. The rain begins with a single drop.”
Hathloul’s reaction was more concise. “Praise be to God,” she wrote.
Asma Siddiki, an educator at King Abdullah Economic City, said the issue was not the top priority for Saudi women but had become “symbolic.”
“We enjoy some rights that other celebrated democracies do not enjoy and yet everything was brushed under the all- encompassing question of the right of women to drive,” she said. “I feel ecstatic that it is about to become a moot topic.”
“I am also quite relieved,” she added, “that I, not my husband, may be the person who will teach my children how to drive, being a better driver, in my opinion.”
Ali al-Ahmed, director of the Institute of Gulf Affairs, a group often critical of the Saudi leadership, said the decision reflects the influence of reforms pushed by the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
“This shows his stamp,” Ahmed said. “The ban was increasing unpopular and difficult for the ruling family to justify. It was inevitable that it would be lifted someday. Now was the time with the Saudi economy struggling with low oil prices and the monarchy facing some internal pressures.”
Last year, the well-known Saudi investor Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud, who is a member of the royal family, declared that the kingdom’s refusal to allow women to drive was draining billions of dollars from the sagging economy.
A new government plan has called for increasing the role of Saudi women in the economy, including boosting their participation in the workforce, from 22 percent to 30 percent by 2030.
Last month, a woman was appointed the chief executive of a major Saudi bank — a first in the country’s history. That came a few days after Saudi Arabia’s stock exchange appointed a woman as its chair.
Sahar Bahrawi, novelist also lives in Jiddah, said the announcement “means the world.”
“It means we obtained our right for mobility thanks to our king. Now we are really free , we are really celebrating,” she said. “We are equal to all the women around the world.”
Loulwa Bakr, a senior financial adviser who also lives in Jiddah, said she was “just happy that I no longer have to tell my 7-year-old to stop ogling at women driving in Europe because yes, it’s normal and okay for women to drive!”
“One small pedal for Saudi women, one giant leap for women kind,” she said.
Brian Murphy in Washington, Souad Mekhennet in London, Kareem Fahim in Istanbul and Sudarsan Raghavan in Cairo contributed to this report.