Clerics in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, have long struggled to justify the kingdom’s decades-old ban on women driving. None could cite a verse in the Koran to justify barring women from driving a vehicle.
On September 26th the Kingdom decided to lift the ban. The decision was welcomed by women and many men. It will give Saudi women a freedom that others take for granted. It will have economic benefits, too, sparing families the cost of hiring a (male) driver and making it easier for women to get out of the house and into the labour market. The essence has been seized upon by many Saudi women, who say things as simple as school runs and shopping trips will, from June next year – when the law comes into effect – be far easier. So too will commuting to work, or visiting friends, or relatives – and here’s the catch – as long as those relatives accept. No other country bans women drivers, apart from the non-country, Islamic State.
The kingdom has long been ruled by a pact between the Al Saud ruling family and Wahhabi clerics who impose their ultra-strict interpretation of Islamic law. The crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman (MBS), has been given, by his father, King Salman, control over most things, including the economy and defence policy. MBS has drawn up an ambitious reform programme to diversify the country away from oil and wean Saudis off government jobs by energising the private sector. Tapping the kingdom’s greatest underused resource, namely its women, is an obvious place to begin. More women attend Saudi universities than men, but they make up just 15% of the workforce.
Under repressive guardianship laws, male relatives have veto over whether wives or daughters can leave the home unaccompanied. While a woman can be granted a licence and is allowed to drive, a male family member can still stop her from doing so.
Saudi leaders believe that breaking down such attitudes will take time. But by removing the legal cover to enforce such a ban, Prince Mohammed is hoping to accelerate the process. MBS has chipped away at the wilaya (guardianship) system, which puts women under the thumb of male relatives. Public concerts, previously banned, started this year. There is even talk of opening cinemas for the first time since the 1980s. Recently, women have been allowed into the national sports stadium in Riyadh and a concert in Jeddah. Nevertheless, there are critics of MBS who claim that he acts rashly. He has pursued a cruel war in Yemen and led a diplomatic assault on Qatar, with little to show for either. The lifting of the ban on women drivers seems timed to distract attention from the recent suppression of dissent at home.