The decree, handed down by Saudi King Salman last September, officially went into effect on Sunday, when the nationwide ban against women behind the wheel was lifted. The new policy allows women to apply for and receive driver’s licenses. Ten women have already done so, earlier this month, and thousands more are expected to get their licenses in the coming weeks.
But it’s still a long road ahead for the women of Saudi Arabia, and the Saudi monarchy’s decision to allow women to drive appears to be more of an opportunistic move rather than a feminist one.
Heaping too much praise on the monarchy and framing their decision as progressive glosses over the history of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. Women have called for the right to drive since the 1990s, risking imprisonment, harassment, and exile in pursuit of equal rights under the law.
Many of these activists have been harshly penalized and still remain behind bars, and the struggle continues. Only a month ago, the Saudi government imprisoned about a dozen women who previously rallied against the driving ban — the same one that has just been lifted — and have been noted critics of the male guardianship policy that governs most of Saudi society.
Driving aside, male guardianship has been and continues to be a pervasive discriminatory practice in Saudi Arabia. The male guardianship system requires every woman to have some kind of male guardian — a father, brother, husband, or even a son — who makes major life decisions for them. That includes getting married, traveling out of the country, and applying for a passport. According to Reuters, Saudi officials say women won’t need permission to drive or have a guardian in the car while driving.
Saudi Arabia was the last country in the world to ban women from getting behind the wheel. As the birthplace of Islam, the country’s long-time restrictions on women driving have been officially attributed to religious practice. The major policy change was backed by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, who has been hailed as a progressive reformer by many supporters — but this is ultimately a tactical play by the monarchy and just one of many elements of the crown prince’s ambitious efforts to reform the nation’s economy, which centers on weaning Saudi Arabia off of what he’s called an “addiction” to oil.
Granting women the right to drive is a step towards revitalizing the Saudi workforce and enabling them to join in. By 2030, the nation hopes to raise the number of working Saudi women from 22% to 30%, in large part because women will be able to travel on their own. The decision to lift the driving ban is a strategy sandwiched between the crown prince’s other proposals, including raising gas prices, issuing licenses for commercial movie theaters, and opening Saudi Arabia to tourism.