Saudi women, a year after driving reform

On June 24 last year, Saudi women took the driver’s seat for the first time in the kingdom’s history.
Saturday 29/06/2019
In the driver’s seat. A Saudi woman practises driving in Riyadh.(AFP)
In the driver’s seat. A Saudi woman practises driving in Riyadh.(AFP)

RIYADH - Saudi Arabia on June 24 marked one year since it allowed women to drive for the first time, a flagship reform as the petro-state seeks to overhaul its ultra-conservative image.

But a number of policies remain in place that leave male relatives in charge of major decisions affecting women’s lives.

Here is where the kingdom stands on five key issues:


Saudi Arabia’s so-called guardianship system places the legal and personal affairs of women in the hands of their fathers, brothers, husbands and even sons.

Women require the formal permission of their closest male relative to enroll in classes at home or to leave the country for classes abroad.

In July 2017, Saudi Arabia’s education ministry announced girls’ schools would begin to offer physical education classes for the first time, providing they conform with Islamic law.

The ministry did not specify whether girls would need permission from their guardians to take part.

Saudi Arabia has several women-only universities.


Restrictions the guardianship system has long imposed on women’s employment have been loosened as Saudi Arabia tries to

wean itself from its dependence on oil.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, named heir to the throne in June 2017, has promoted an economic plan known as “Vision 2030,” which aims to boost the female quota in the workplace from 22 to 30% by 2030.

King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, his father, has signed decrees allowing women to apply online for their own business licences. The Saudi police force now also employs female officers.

Travel, driving

Women still require a male guardian’s permission to renew their passports and leave the country.

But on June 24 last year, women took the driver’s seat for the first time in the kingdom’s history.

While the end of the driving ban was largely welcomed, it did not signal an opening up of

political freedoms.

Several women’s rights activists, including veteran campaigners for the right to drive, were detained just weeks earlier and later put on trial on a host of charges, including speaking to foreign journalists.

Personal status

Under the guardianship system, women of all ages require the consent of their male guardian to get married.

A man may divorce his wife without her consent.

In January, the Saudi justice ministry said courts were required to notify women by text message that their marriages had been terminated, a measure apparently aimed at ending cases of men getting a divorce without informing their partners.

Public spaces

In January 2018, women were allowed into a special section in select sports stadiums for the first time. They had previously been banned from attending sporting events.

Saudi Arabia has also reined in its infamous morality police, who for decades had patrolled the streets on the lookout for women with uncovered hair or bright nail polish.

Some women in the capital, Riyadh, and other cities now appear in public without headscarves.