Vehicles | September 27, 2017 9:49 am

Saudi Arabia to Lift Ban on Women Drivers

It was the only country that prohibited women from driving.

a woman drives a car in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
FILE- In this Saturday, March 29, 2014 file photo, a woman drives a car in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, as part of a campaign to defy Saudi Arabia's ban on women driving. Saudi Arabia authorities announced Tuesday Sept. 26, 2017, that women will be allowed to drive for the first time in the ultra-conservative kingdom from next summer, fulfilling a key demand of women's rights activists who faced detention for defying the ban. (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali, FILE)

Saudi Arabia was the only country in the world that banned women from driving, until now. Saudi Arabia’s King Salman has issued a decree allowing women to drive, to the joy of activists and women in the country, reports BBC

Women who drove in public risked being arrested and fined. Only men were allowed to hold licenses.

The decision has been highly praised, reports the BBC, both in the Gulf kingdom and around the world. President Donald Trump even said it was a “positive step” towards promoting women’s rights.

Women in the country are thrilled, reports BBC. Many women in the country are “extremely well educated and ambitious,” writes BBC, and have been waiting decades to be able to fully participate in their country’s economy. Campaigner Sahar Nassif told the BBC that she was going to buy her dream car — a black and yellow Mustang convertible — and that she was “very, very excited” and was “jumping up and down and laughing.”

Women in the country — who have to follow a strict dress code, must not associate with unrelated men and need a male guardian to travel, work, or access health care, according to BBC — will not have to get any sort of male permissions to take driving lessons, and will be able to drive wherever they would like, the country’s US ambassador Prince Khaled bin Salman said, according to the BBC. He also called it an “historic and big day” and said it was the “right decision at the right time.”

Now, a ministerial body will be set up to give advice within 30 days, BBC writes, and the royal order will be implemented by June 24, 2018. According to BBC, the decree is in line with Vision 2030, a program promoted by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. The program hopes to “modernize Saudi society and bring it more into line with the rest of the world,” writes BBC. 

Activists have been working towards this for years. Many families had to employ private drivers to help transport female relatives, reports BBC, which would stretch family’s budgets to the limit. Women were imprisoned by defying the rule, like Saudi activist Loujain al-Hathloul, who was detained for 73 days in 2014 for disregarding the ban. She tweeted “thank God” following the announcement, reports BBC. 

Manal al-Sharif, an organizer of the Women2Drive campaign, was also imprisoned for driving. She too tweeted after the announcement, saying that Saudi Arabia “would never be the same again,” reports BBC. Popular hashtags on social media popped up, including “I am my own guardian” and “Saudi Women Can Drive.”

Of course there are critics of the decision. BBC reports that some conservative voices accused the government of “bending the verses of Sharia.”

“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 person tweeted, according to BBC. 

And other people said that though this is a positive step, Saudi Arabia still remains a long way off in terms of gender equality. Amnesty International’s Philip Luther said it was “just one step” but also said that there are more discriminatory laws and practices that need to be “swept away in Saudi Arabia.”