Saudi Arabia Announces Women’s Driving Reforms, Delays Implementation

On Tuesday 26 September 2017, Saudi Arabia announced that it would allow women to drive for the first time in the history of the kingdom. The policy change, which was announced over state television, will reportedly go into effect in June 2018. Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) calls on Saudi Arabia to fulfill this reform without delay. ADHRB further urges the kingdom to follow this step with the abolition of the male guardianship system and other forms of discrimination against women, and ensure full equality between women and men.

This week’s announcement by the Saudi government reverses the long-standing ban on women driving, which has been in place for decades. Conservative forces in the kingdom had opposed allowing women to drive, saying that it would “expose them to evil,” and citing a breakdown in morality and the Saudi family structure. Despite this opposition, the ban on women driving was never a codified legal or religious ban. The then-Deputy Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, claimed in April 2017 that “women driving is not a religious issue as much as it is an issue that relates to the community itself that either accepts it or refuses it.” In this respect, the Saudi government had long declared that neither Saudi society nor Saudi women themselves were ready to see women driving.

Despite bin Salman’s statement that Saudi society was against allowing women to drive, activists have long pushed for an end to the ban and to broader discrimination. A number of women have participated in driving campaigns, despite the threat of detention and arrest. Among those who have protested the driving ban are Loujain al-Hathloul, Maysaa al-Amoudi, and Manal al-Sharif. Activism surrounding women driving has been part of a larger push towards greater gender equality and women’s rights. On 27 September 2016, women’s rights activist Aziza al-Yousef delivered a petition to the government calling for the abolition of the system of male guardianship, which was signed by over 14,000 women and men.

Husain Abdulla, Executive Director of ADHRB: “We are cautiously optimistic at the announcement to finally allow women to drive in Saudi Arabia, but this is just one step towards true gender equality. The driving ban is only one of the most conspicuous forms of widespread and systematic discrimination against women. In order to truly address this discrimination, the Saudi government must completely abolish the system of male guardianship and allow women and girls equal access to all services, public and private. This is the moment for Saudi Arabia to prove that its reform efforts are genuine, but to do so, it cannot stop here.”

Saudi Arabia has announced various reform efforts in the past and then refused to carry them out as promised. If Saudi Arabia follows through in overturning the ban on women driving, this will be a welcome first step toward broader, effective reforms. ADHRB looks forward to the implementation of this announced end to the driving ban, and calls on the Saudi government to follow this reform with further steps to abolish the male guardianship system and other discriminatory policies against women.