Saudi King issues order allowing women to drive

Ian Allen     Head coach Theodore Whitmore during a Reggae Boyz training session earlier this year. 

          Gladstone Taylor     Ricketts

Ian Allen Head coach Theodore Whitmore during a Reggae Boyz training session earlier this year. Gladstone Taylor Ricketts

Saudi Arabia's surprise decision to grant women the right to drive in the conservative kingdom marks a significant expansion in women's rights, but activists said yesterday it is also only the first step in a long list of demands for equality.

The order was issued by King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and was announced by the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Positive reactions quickly poured in from inside the kingdom and around the world.

Prince Khaled and the king's son, said letting women drive is a "huge step forward" and that "society is ready".

Saudi Arabia was the only country in the world to ban women driving, and it was seen globally as a symbol of repression in the Gulf kingdom. The women, who came to be known as "the drivers", were detained, fired from their jobs and broadly criticized.

The decision by the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman to permit women to drive has produced widespread global coverage, all of it praising the move. Females are also subject to strict dress codes and gender segregation.

In a tweet, Guterres wrote: "I welcome Saudi Arabia's decision to lift the ban on women drivers".

Saudi Arabia spends more than 25 billion riyals ($6.7 billion) on annual salaries of its 1.38 million foreign drivers, on top of additional expenses for their entry and residence permits, housing and healthcare.

There was some opposition online, however, with some men criticising the decision on Twitter under the slogan "the people refuse women driving".

Women live under a draconian system of guardianship in Saudi Arabia, one where they require the permission of a male guardian, usually a father, or husband, to carry out daily activities.

There are approximately 800,000 drivers working for Saudi women. About 10 million women over the age of 20, including foreigners, live in Saudi Arabia; almost 1.4 million foreigners work as household drivers, earning roughly $500 a month in addition to being provided with accommodation and food.

Samira Atallah, Senior Advisor for worldwide women's rights organisation Equality Now, says "the royal decree allowing women to drive is long overdue".

In 1990, 47 women staged a protest by driving in a convoy down a major street in the Saudi capital, Riyadh.

"Saudi Arabia has long assumed a leading role in protecting Lebanon, starting with its sponsorship of the Taif Agreement and supporting the country's economy". The government aims to reduce that by a quarter as part of its Vision 2030 reform program.

According to the royal statement, the decree will be "effective immediately" but will take months to roll out as a committee of ministers has been set up to look into the implementation process, which is said to take actual effect in June 2018.

Checking that optimism will be the reality that many women will continue to need the approval of a man to buy a auto or take on new responsibilities.

Some Saudis have expressed concerns on social media that these sets of logistics might be used as an excuse to limit women's right to drive freely even after lifting the ban. Every penny we collect from donations supports vital investigative journalism. It costs a lot to produce, so many publications facing an uncertain future can no longer fund it.

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