Manal Al-Sharif drives her car in Dubai on October 22, 2013. She is among the Saudi women who defied the country's laws in the fight to be allowed to take to the wheel. Photo: AFP / Marwan Naamani

King Salman issued a groundbreaking royal decree on September 26 that gives women the right to drive in Saudi Arabia.

To a non-Saudi audience, this may sound comical, given that such gender inequality no longer exists in most countries across the world. The idea that – 132 years after the first automobile was created – women could remained barred from driving in a wealthy and technologically advanced country like Saudi Arabia seems somehow preposterous. It was sadly true, however, until this week.

There was no written law banning women from driving in the oil-rich kingdom. But there is nothing in the book of Islam to allow it. The country has no constitution, and uses the Quran as a guide in all of its daily affairs. Interpretation is reserved for Islamic judges, who previously ruled that women driving cars is un-Islamic. Women walking without a chaperone, or mingling with male strangers, or being seen in public without a niqab: these offenses fall into the same category.

Saudi scholars argue that a real Islamic state should operate after the fashion of the earliest Muslims, in whose society women did not drive, although this is to overlook the hard fact that the wives of the Prophet Mohammad rode horses and took part in combat.

Former King Abdullah Ibin Abdul-Aziz – the brother of the present monarch – tried to break many of these Puritanical rules, appointing a woman as deputy minister of education back in 2009. Earlier, he had given women the right to vote and to stand in municipal elections — which were, in themselves, a novelty, having been banned since the kingdom’s founding in the early 1920s. In December 2015, 1,000 women ran for office, but were forced to campaign from behind curtains, or to be represented by a male. Before his death earlier that year, King Abdullah appointed 30 men to the powerful Shura Council, the country’s formal advisory body.

A Saudi woman disembarks from a car outside a mall in the Saudi capital Riyadh on September 27, 2017. Photo: AFP / Fayez Nureldine

According to a 2002 report in The Economist, 500,000 chauffeurs were then employed in Saudi Arabia to drive women around. A handful of brave Saudi women have worked hard to challenge this. Many, over the years, have traveled to nearby Bahrain, where they learned to drive and obtained licenses that are valid across the Gulf. In Kuwait, women are even required to lift their face-veils when driving. Other countries, including Oman, Qatar, and the UAE, have no restrictions on women driving, although all are Islamic states.

Taking a desperate stand, dozens defied the ban back in 1990, driving through Saudi cities, but were arrested. Then, in 2007, an organized movement petitioned King Abdullah to lift the ban, raising over 1,000 signatures. Four years later, in June-July 2011, 50 women defied the ban again. One of them, Manal al-Sharif – a respected columnist for the mass-circulation, London-based Saudi newspaper al-Hayat – started a Facebook page called Teach Me How to Drive, or Women2Drive.

One member of Sharif’s team, Shaima Jastania, was jailed and sentenced to 10 lashes for driving in the port city of Jeddah in September 2011, but her sentence was later revoked by the king himself. Another, Najla al-Hariri was also spotted driving in mid-2011. Sharif herself was also detained, then released on bail, on condition that she refrain from speaking to the media. She has since moved to Australia and releasing a seminal book earlier this summer called Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening. Published by Simon & Schuster, it is currently being translated into Arabic.

Salman’s royal decree finally puts Saudi Arabia on par with other Arab countries such as Egypt, where the first woman driver showed up on the streets of Cairo in the summer of 1920

In October 2013, Saudi women tried to break the ban on a wider scale, but they received individual threats and warnings from the Ministry of Interior, forcing them to back down. One of those activists was Wajeha Huwaider, co-founder of the Association for the Protection and Defense of Women’s Rights in Saudi Arabia. She penned an article in 2006, saying: “Saudi women are weak, no matter how high their status, even the pampered ones amongst them believe they have no law to protect them from attack by anybody.” In 2008 she raised eyebrows in Saudi Arabia by posting a video of herself driving through the streets of Riyadh.   

Until recently the idea remained taboo, even for open-minded royals such as Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, who was quoted in April 2016 as saying: “Women driving is not a religious issue as much as it is an issue that relates to the community,” adding that conservatives in Saudi Arabia were simply not ready for such a sight.

Today, the powerful young emir is generally believed to be behind the lifting of the ban, as he is running all state affairs on behalf of his aged and ailing father. Salman’s royal decree finally puts Saudi Arabia on par with other Arab countries such as Egypt, where the first woman driver showed up on the streets of Cairo in the summer of 1920.

Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon came next in 1936, followed by Bahrain in 1945.  Jordan joined the club in the 1950s, followed by the UAE in the early 1970s. The first woman driver in the world was Alice Ramsey of the United States, who drove across the country as early as 1909.

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