On Sunday, Saudi Arabia will end the world’s only ban on women drivers.
For the first time in its history, women will be able to drive themselves legally through the ultra-conservative kingdom’s streets.
The landmark step is the culmination of years of activism and appeals from inside and outside the Gulf nation. But, while a welcome development, activists say the battle for women’s rights is far from over.
Why are women being allowed to drive now?
The move comes as part of a series of sweeping social and economic reforms known as Vision 2030. Initiated over the past two years, the reforms have been spearheaded by Saudi Arabia’s 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The end of the driving ban will allow many more women to join the workforce, a key goal for the Crown Prince. Until now, many Saudi women have had to employ male drivers, something that eats into their salaries and is prohibitive for some.
A royal decree was issued in September announcing the end of the ban in June 2018. Since then, the kingdom has been readying itself for a historic shift that will bring it into line with the rest of the world.
Earlier this month, the kingdom issued its first driver’s licenses to 10 Saudi women in exchange for licenses they’d acquired while abroad.
In January, ride-hailing applications Uber and Careem said they were recruiting female drivers for when the ban lifts.
What’s the background to this?
The lifting of the driving ban comes 28 years after Saudi women first took to the streets of the capital, Riyadh, to protest for the right to drive. The 47 Saudi women who drove in a motorcade through the city were all arrested, and the country’s highest religious body issued an edict banning female driving, adding what had been a customary ban to the legal code.
The decades that followed the 1990 Riyadh protest were peppered with movements to lift the ban, but they came to a head around the time of the Arab Spring in 2011. A social-media campaign called Women2Drive culminated in activist Manal al-Sharif posting a video of herself driving in the Saudi city of Khobar on YouTube – a move that landed her in jail. She now lives in Australia.
Other activists also emerged at the forefront of the movement. Loujain al-Hathloul was detained for 73 days in 2014 after trying to drive from the United Arab Emirates to Saudi Arabia. Eman al-Nafjan, a well-known blogger, drove in Riyadh in 2013 as part of a protest that attracted international attention. Aziza al-Yousef, who is 70, was one of the country’s earliest activists for the right to drive and signed a petition in recent years calling for an end to guardianship laws.
All three were arrested last month in a sweep that targeted women’s rights groups, casting doubt on the Crown Prince’s much-touted reform effort. The government’s defenders said the move was necessary to quell conservative dissent on June 24. Analysts told CNN the arrests were an attempt to deprive the activists of credit for the lifting of the ban.
The crackdown came on the heels of bin Salman’s month-long tour of Western countries, where he was billed as a modernizer spearheading change.
What other rights have Saudi women gained?
Over the past year, Saudi Arabia has opened its first cinema in decades and loosened several morality laws that discriminate against women, including its notorious rules requiring that women receive a male guardian’s permission to travel, receive an education and sometimes work and receive health care.
The kingdom also announced that Saudi mothers would now be able to retain custody of their children after divorce without filing lawsuits. In doing so, it broke ranks with several other countries in the region that heavily favor male guardianship.
Women are also now permitted to attend certain sporting events.
In 2015 women cast ballots for the first time ever during municipal elections, a vote in which they were also allowed to campaign for public office. But female candidates weren’t allowed to speak to male voters and couldn’t have men and women mixing in their campaign offices.
At least 17 women were elected during the 2015 municipal vote. The late King Abdullah issued a decree in 2011 that gave women the vote and two years later, ordered that at least 20% of seats in the Consultative Council be set aside for women.
What rights do Saudi women still not have?
Saudi Arabia, which adheres to some of the strictest interpretations of Sunni Islam in the world, has long been accused of formal legal discrimination against women.
Women still are beholden to restrictive guardianship laws that govern nearly every aspect of their lives, despite recent moves to ease them. In cases where a woman’s father is deceased or absent, her husband, a male relative, brother, or in some cases, even a son, must give his approval before a woman can obtain often basic entitlements.
Saudi women still cannot mix freely with members of the opposite sex. Some exceptions include hospitals, banks and medical colleges. They also cannot appear in public without wearing a full-length black abaya, a loose robe meant to protect women’s modesty in public.
Rights group Amnesty International on Thursday welcomed the lifting of the driving ban as “a long-overdue small step in the right direction” but said it “must now be followed by reforms to end a whole range of discriminatory laws and practices,” including an end to the guardianship system.
The group also highlighted the plight of rights activists who remain imprisoned following last month’s crackdown and may face trial before the country’s counterterrorism court.
“It is outrageous that women are still treated like second-class citizens in Saudi Arabia,” it said. “If Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman truly believes himself to be a reformer, he should free the women’s rights activists, and include activists and civil society members in Saudi Arabia’s reform process.”
CNN’s Tamara Qiblawi and Jamie Tarabay contributed to this report.