This past Tuesday, September 26, King Salman of Saudi Arabia surprised many observers around the world by reversing his country’s ban on women drivers. Starting in 2018, women will be permitted to obtain driver’s licenses. Previously, demonstrators had faced harsh fines and jail sentences for flaunting this rule. Activist Manal al-Sharif was arrested in 2011 after she disseminated footage of herself driving a car.
Before Tuesday, Saudi Arabia’s policy on women drivers had garnered international condemnation. Numerous human rights organizations had stated their opposition to the ban. Saudi Arabia, after revising its interpretation of Wahhabi Islam, its prohibition of women drivers, will now join every other country in the planet in granting women the right to drive cars.
It is suspected that the policy reversal was also motivated by economic reasons. In Saudi Arabia, hiring a male driver can drain up to a third of one’s income, which leaves less money for citizens to invest in education for their children. Furthermore, a lot of drivers in Saudi Arabia are foreigners. Therefore, allowing women to drive would reduce the amount of money that leaves Saudi Arabia in the hands of these foreign drivers, benefitting the Saudi economy. In a sense, this policy resembles a mild form of nationalization. King Salman recognized this argument, having stated his support of it using Twitter last November while he was still Crown Prince.
Although Saudi women remain largely oppressed under Saudi laws, many women’s rights activists have rejoiced at Saudi Arabia’s policy reversal, hoping that it is a harbinger of future rights to be granted to women — as recently as last week, women were allowed into a sports stadium for the first time in Saudi Arabia’s history. The US State Department echoed these thoughts, saying that the policy reversal “was a great step in the right direction.”