JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia (CNN) — Women in Saudi Arabia have been celebrating the news that they will finally be able to drive, a landmark step that brings the conservative kingdom in line with the rest of the world and will allow many more women to work.
The Saudi Foreign ministry announced Tuesday that a royal decree has been issued that will allow women to drive by next June.
“This is a historic big day in our kingdom,” Prince Khaled bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the US, said Tuesday in a briefing with reporters.
The move follows years of activism and appeals both from within and outside the Gulf nation.
Kholoud Attar, a 32-year-old Saudi designer and magazine owner who has been running her business for 10 years, told CNN the change would make a “huge difference” both to her and to her female employees.
“Being able to drive really facilitates a lot of logistics and helps with shaving off the time to get things done,” she said. “It’s so thrilling to be able to do this.”
For her female workers, the biggest gain will be in not having to pay for a driver or other transportation out of their salaries, Attar said. Employing a driver currently eats up a third of the average monthly salary for her staff members, who may also have to find the money for their children’s care or education, she said.
As for those who remain opposed to women driving, Attar said, their voices “just became much quieter” thanks to the government saying it would be allowed.
‘Huge battle won’
Manal al-Sharif, one of the women behind the Women2Drive campaign in Saudi Arabia, said the magnitude of the decision to allow women to drive “won’t make sense” to those outside the country, “but if you live in Saudi Arabia, it’s a huge battle that was won today.”
She celebrated the victory Tuesday by posting a photo on Twitter of herself behind the wheel of a car.
Sharif, who now lives in Australia, was jailed in Saudi Arabia 2011 after posting a video on YouTube of herself driving a car. The act provoked death threats and spurred her to start the campaign.
Speaking to CNN from Australia, she hailed Saudi Arabia’s “new leadership” as young and “courageous.” There will be a “huge backlash” from “the extremist Islamists in my country,” she said. “It won’t go unnoticed.”
Economic stagnation, she said, was a big impetus for the decision.
“They cannot afford keeping the women in the back seat. They want to make women fully involved in the economy, and you can’t do that — you can’t assign a woman to be in a political position or in a government position, and she still can’t drive her own car.”
‘Life will be faster’
Nouf Alosaimi, a 29-year-old diving instructor based in Jeddah, told CNN that even with a driver, it was a hassle arranging trips and scheduling work appointments.
“Life will be faster,” she said, adding that she was looking forward most of all to the adventure that will come with driving her own car.
“I live in a country that I can’t explore,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to explore the kingdom’s coasts… I can’t take someone I don’t know to drive me to these places and my brothers are too busy to take me on long trips.”
Alosaimi, who recently returned to Saudi Arabia from abroad because of an increase in demand for diving among women, said the decision would increase tourism revenues, not just because of the expected increase in women tourists but also thanks to women-run tourism businesses.
Restrictive rules remain
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia follows a strict form of Wahhabi Islam that bans the mixing of sexes at public events and places numerous curbs on women, including needing the permission of a male guardian to work or travel. These restrictions are enforced by religious police.
Saudi women will not have to get permission from their male guardians to take driving lessons, ambassador bin Salman told CNN.
However, rules that govern the guardianship of women will continue to restrict many aspects of everyday life for the country’s female population.
Liesl Gerntholtz, executive director of the Women’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch, told CNN that while being allowed to drive was a “very important step,” there was still a long way to go for Saudi women.
“This prohibition on driving is just one in a vast series of laws and policies which prevent women from doing many things,” she said. “The guardianship rule stops women from making every decision in her life without the assistance of a male relative, even if that relative is her 7-year-old son.”
The move to ease some restrictions on women has huge implications for the Saudi economy and women’s ability to work. It is the latest in a series of changes that have been rippling through Saudi Arabia since the rise of 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The crown prince, appointed to the position by his father in June, is spearheading a plan to reform and transform the Saudi economy by 2030 and, in line with that goal, increase the number of women in the workforce.
Marriam Mossalli, a Saudi entrepreneur who founded a Jeddah-based consultancy firm specializing in luxury marketing, Niche Arabia, told CNN that “with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, things are happening quite quickly, at a ‘millennial’ speed,” compared with the past.
The decision to let women drive will allow the debate to move on to other, more important issues, she said.
“We can go now beyond that and look at the real issues we have, more entrepreneurs, more women in the workforce, and this is why the ban was lifted, to facilitate putting women in the workforce,” she said.
“A driver can be costly, around $400-800 a month, while an average entry level income for a woman working for example as a school teacher is $1,600… almost half of your salary is going to a driver. This is an economical decision and a human rights one.”
Mossalli, a social media influencer whose company helped to organize the first public sports day for women in Saudi history, added: “Being conservative and contemporary are not mutually exclusive. You can be a modern conservative Saudi.”
Throughout Wednesday, the leading hashtag in the Saudi Twittersphere was against women driving. Many social media users expressed concerns that allowing women to drive would violate the kingdom’s strict rules on gender segregation.
Adnan el-Bar, 52, deputy director of Jeddah municipality council, told CNN the issues raised after the announcement ranged from infrastructure challenges to reservations about the possible social changes.
But, he said, the government has already laid out infrastructure changes that will be put in place, including setting up driving schools for women and special entities to issue driving licenses, and providing support for female drivers in case their car breaks down.
El-Bar said he didn’t expect a huge increase in number of vehicles on the road once the decision is implemented. “I expect 50% of women will not let go of their drivers,” he said, although this could change as more women join the job market as transportation costs drop.
“Time has come for a cultural change,” he said. “Now, the debate has moved from the social realm to the family. It will be up for each family to decide.”
Decisions would be based on many variables, from the cost of buying a new car to family traditions and religious beliefs, he said.
The social repercussions are unpredictable, El-Bar added. While one concern is a potential backlash from conservative society against female drivers, El-Bar said that even if such incidents occur, they would be isolated cases rejected by Saudi society.
“This is a sovereign decision by the government,” he said. “This is not a victory for one side over the other; all decisions are for the country’s interests … to move the wheel of development forward.”
The Saudi Senior Scholars Council, Saudi Arabia’s highest religious body, “commended” the royal order allowing women to drive in a statement Wednesday, Saudi state news agency SPA reported, saying there was no religious reason to prevent women driving vehicles.