Saudi women join the ranks of licensed drivers ahead of ban ending
LONDON - Saudi authorities have begun preparations to remove the country’s ban on women driving, which is to end June 24. Saudi officials on June 4 issued driver’s licences to ten women, as a precursor to removing one of the most divisive issues in Saudi society.
“Ten Saudi women made history on [June 4] when they were issued driver’s licences,” said the Information Ministry’s Centre for International Communication (CIC). “Expectations are that, next week, an additional 2,000 women will join the ranks of licensed drivers in the kingdom.”
“It’s a dream come true that I am about to drive in the kingdom,” Rema Jawdat, one of the licence recipients, was quoted by CIC as saying.
News that women had been issued driver’s licences saw “#first_saudi_female_driving_licence” become the top trending hashtag among Saudi Twitter users. A video showing the first Saudi woman, Ahlam al-Thenayan, receiving her licence also went viral and was widely carried by Saudi news outlets.
Ultraconservatives argue that women driving is immoral and warned that women doing so would be subject to sexual harassment. Four years ago, the country’s top cleric, Grand Mufti Abdulaziz al-Sheikh, warned that the ban “was in the best interest of society,” arguing that it protected women from dealing with the consequences of an accident.
Anticipating such concerns, Riyadh recently passed a law criminalising sexual harassment, with convictions carrying a prison term of up to five years and a fine of up to $80,000.
Ending the women’s driving ban is part of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 programme, which is to reduce the kingdom’s dependence on the energy sector through diversifying its economy.
Tied to economic changes are various social reforms, in which women’s rights feature prominently. They include an easing of the kingdom’s male guardianship system, granting women independent access to government services, jobs, education and health care without the need for prior consent.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz emphasised that point in an interview with CBS News’ “60 Minutes” programme in March, during which he stressed equality of the sexes. “Absolutely,” he said. “We are all human beings and there is no difference.”
The ban on women driving had been unofficially in place for decades before it was codified into law after 47 female Saudi activists drove in Riyadh to protest the unofficial ban in November 1990. They were jailed for one day and had their passports confiscated.
A royal decree by Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud signalled the reversal of the ban last September.