Saudi Arabia announced Tuesday it will lift the ban on women driving, a policy that has long served as a symbol of the country’s unequal treatment of women. Saudi Arabia is the very last country in the world to do so.
“Saudi Arabia allows women to drive,” tweeted the official account of the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
While some took to Twitter and other social media to hail the move as a victory for women’s rights in a kingdom governed by a strict interpretation of Sharia law, others seemed less than impressed.
The policy itself will not be implemented until June of 2018, and the reasons why illustrate how far the country is from becoming a bastion of feminism and women’s equality. According to The New York Times, the delay is due to various bureaucratic gaps that would make it difficult for women to to obtain licenses or learn how to drive. The Times also points out that policemen will have to learn how to interact to with female drivers in a country where men and women rarely interact with non-family members.
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To be sure, giving women the ability to drive will likely give many more women access to the workforce and economic independence, which, incidentally, is one of the broad goals of Saudi leadership’s plans to rejuvenate the Kingdom’s economy.
Given the driving ban, women have recently begun to rely on ride-hailing apps like Uber, which have facilitated their entry into the workforce, and decreased their dependency on men to chauffeur them. But relying on ride-hailing for transportation also became an added expense in a country that has the world’s second largest pay gap between men and women, and where women constitute approximately 20 percent of the country’s workforce.
The policy shift is the mark of King Salman’s hope to reform Saudi Arabia since he took over in 2015. “The issue of women driving was never a religious or a cultural issue,” said Prince Khalid bin Salman, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, in a statement. “This was a societal issue. Today, we have a young and vibrant society and the time had come to make this move.”
Indeed, the past few months have seen Saudi Arabia make incremental steps toward women’s rights by allowing them to participate in functions considered mundane, if not a nuisance, in many other countries.
On Saturday women were welcomed into a sports stadium for the first time to celebrate the country’s national day and in June, the Ministry of Education declared female students would have access to physical education in the coming school year.
Still, the country has a long way to go. The World Economic Forum ranked Saudi Arabia 141 of 144 countries in its 2016 global gender gap report.