Saudi Arabia, the only country in the world that officially prohibited women from driving, lifted the ban on Tuesday through a royal decree. Though driving licences for women are unlikely to be issued before June after a panel recommends the rules and ‘infrastructure’ needed to put the order into effect, the unexpected decision is a path-breaking one for the ultra-orthodox Sunni kingdom. While women drivers are frowned upon in several Islamic nations, Saudi Arabia was the only remaining country that officially prohibited it.
While several senior emirs and princes in the nation hailed the decree issued by ailing King Salman, they made it a point that this would be allowed subject to Shariah rules. This is a nation where barely four years ago, there were protests from conservative clergy when the late Saudi monarch King Abdullah allowed himself to be photographed with female students wearing simple head covers.
While it was King Salman who issued the decree, most people believe that the man behind the step was Crown Prince and heir-apparent Mohammad bin Salman, the first deputy PM, and at 32, the youngest defence minister in the world. Annointed successor barely four months ago after his father deposed the other contender, Muhammad bin Nayef (a nephew of King Salman and grandson of the founding monarch King Abdulaziz), the young crown prince is also said to be behind the recent decisions allowing women into the national sports stadium in Riyadh and a concert in Jeddah.
However, while these steps need to be applauded, it is important to keep in mind that under the strict guardianship laws prevailing in the nation, women must have permission from a male guardian to marry, apply for a passport, travel abroad, rent an apartment, file a legal claim, or even leave the house. Even a woman in prison requires a male guardian to agree to her release. So even though a woman can now get a licence, a male family member can still legally prohibit her from driving.