It’s difficult not to be a bit sardonic about women in Saudi Arabia getting the right to drive. It is the 21st century in most of the world, after all, and there’s not a single other country with so nonsensical a restriction. But precisely because the ban was so out of step with the world, the royal decree overturning it carries major symbolic importance.
The ban on driving has hardly been the most onerous of restrictions on the public life of women under the ultraconservative Wahhabi form of Sunni Islam enforced in Saudi Arabia. “Guardianship” laws still require a male to approve many basic actions by a woman, from marrying to traveling abroad, opening a bank account or even undergoing some forms of elective surgery.
Even the parameters of women’s right to get driver’s licenses, which is to go into effect next June 24, are not entirely clear, awaiting the recommendations of a high-level committee — though the Saudi ambassador to Washington insisted that a woman seeking a driver’s license would not need permission from a male guardian.
Lifting the ban on driving, however, follows several other steps in recent years expanding women’s roles in Saudi society, especially with the rise of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, King Salman’s 32-year-old son, who is said to view greater participation of Saudi women in the work force as a key to needed economic reform. Women have been allowed to vote and run for office in municipal elections since 2015, and more Saudi women than men study in universities. Last week, women were allowed into a sports stadium for the first time.
None of these steps, however, matches the importance of letting women get behind the wheel. Denying women such an everyday a function as driving a car, a restriction that compelled many working women to waste much of their income on male drivers, has long been the premier symbol of the entire Saudi system of gender segregation.
In 1990, 47 women staged a protest by driving in a convoy down a major street in the Saudi capital, Riyadh. The women, who came to be known as “the drivers,” were detained, fired from their jobs and broadly criticized. They and other women who campaigned against the driving ban over the years exchanged exultant congratulations on Tuesday. “We did it,” tweeted Manal Al-Sharif, a Saudi women’s rights…