We have long discussed the crushing sexism faced by women in Saudi Arabia under its medieval Sharia legal system. One of the most glaring inequalities was the ban on women driving — a rule that courageous women defied at the risk of their own freedom and well-being. Now, while about 100 years too late, the Kingdom has announced that women will be issued driver’s licenses. Despite the fierce objections that many of us have to the Saudi system, it is important to give credit to the government in rejecting religious and cultural prejudices, including extremist views expressed recently by Saudi clerics.
Women will be able to drive in June of next year in an announcement that must have electrified women advocates and civil libertarians. The decision is not simply the removal of one of the most disgraceful forms of discrimination, but will also allow women to save the significant amount of money expended on hiring drivers. With the Kingdom desperate for women to contribute to its struggling economy, this change will make a significant impact in not only encouraging women to remain in the Kingdom but to purse positions in the market.
The announcement was greeted with enthusiasm by Prince Khalid bin Salman, the Saudi ambassador, in Washington. The change will be a blow to the infamous “guardianship” laws that give men (and even boys) power over their female relatives.
Reformers in Saudi Arabia continue to struggle with Wahhabi clerics who follow an extreme form of Islam, including orthodox rules on the treatment of women. While the pace of change has been slow for civil libertarians, this is a significant change that is worthy of celebration and praise.