King Salman issued a royal decree this week in Saudi Arabia that for the first time allows women to drive. The religiously conservative country was the only one in the world that had not allowed women to obtain drivers licenses, although they could have cars registered in their own name. The new law takes effect next June.
Salman, who began ruling in 2015, has attempted to modernize the Kingdom and even rethink its natural resource strategy in relation to Saudi Aramco. In the decree he said, “We refer to the negative consequences of not allowing women to drive, and the positive aspects of allowing them to do so, taking into consideration the necessary Shariah regulations and compliance with them.”
Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States framed the decision in more liberal terms by stating that some of the rationale behind the decision was to encourage more women to join the workforce who were previously discouraged because of the need to pay men to drive them to work.
Salman’s decision faced a backlash from the conservative religious establishment, many of whom took to Twitter to complain of a perceived decline in morality and the corruption of women. “As far as I remember, Sharia scholars have said it was haram (forbidden) for women to drive. How come it has suddenly become halal (permissible)?” one critic tweeted.
Women still face numerous disadvantages in the country, although it appears that the government has started taking steps to push back on the Wahabbi leaders who continue to wield substantial influence Saudi Arabia. Women have to adhere to strict dress codes, must not associate with unrelated men, and if they want to travel, work or access healthcare they must be accompanied by – or receive written permission from – a male guardian.