Saudi women rejoice at end of driving ban long backed by clerics
Saudi Arabian women awoke to news of a royal decree permitting them to drive starting next year - and some were already behind the wheel on Sept. 27, even though licenses will not be issued for nine months.
“Saudi Arabia will never be the same again. The rain begins with a single drop,” Manal al-Sharif, who was arrested in 2011 after a driving protest, said in an online statement.
Online videos showed a handful of women driving cars overnight, after King Salman’s decree was announced late on Sept. 26.
“I wish I could translate my feelings right now. I feel like no one can understand it fully but us,” said Abeer Alarjani, 32, who plans to start driving lessons this weekend.
“Now I’ll finally dare to dream for more.”
The move represents a big crack in the laws and social mores governing women in the conservative Muslim kingdom. The male guardianship system requires women to have a male relative’s approval for decisions on education, employment, marriage, travel plans and even medical treatment.
Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, has been widely criticized for being the only remaining country to forbid women to drive.
King Salman’s decree ends a conservative tradition seen by rights activists as an emblem of the country’s suppression of women.
Sharif, the activist, described the driving ban’s removal as “just the start to end long-standing unjust laws (that) have always considered Saudi women minors who are not trusted to drive their own destiny.”
Other rules have loosened recently, with the government sponsoring concerts deemed un-Islamic by the clergy, allowing women into a large sports stadium for the first time and permitting them to dance beside men on a Riyadh street over the weekend.
The state-backed Council of Religious Scholars expressed support for the driving decree. Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al al-Sheikh, who has repeatedly opposed women working and driving and said letting them into politics may mean “opening the door to evil,” has yet to comment.
Still, some men expressed outrage at the about-face by prominent clerics, who in the past have sometimes justified the driving ban by saying women’s brains are too small or that driving endangered their ovaries.
“Whoever says this is permitted is a sinner. Women driving means great evils and this makes them especially sinful,” one Riyadh-based Twitter user wrote.
“Where is the (Grand) Mufti?” said another. “Evil has come to Arabs.”