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Saudi Arabia wins plaudits for ending ban on women driving

27 September 2017

Saudi Arabians woke up to the news on Wednesday that King Salman had issued a royal decree - that women will finally be allowed to drive there.

After more than two decades of campaigns, petitions and protests, women in Saudi Arabia now have the right to drive cars. I also choose to celebrate the moments when they earn the right to take the steering wheel, and drive to a place where we can all safely complain about the smaller stuff.

Razan Al Azzouni, a Saudi fashion designer, welcomed the royal decree, saying that it will have a "huge impact" on her life.

Other women weren't waiting. However, the kingdom's blanket ban has over the years attracted negative publicity.

It is not clear whether the surprise move by King Salman will herald a wider loosening of rules around women's behaviour in Saudi.

Under the system of guardianship in Saudi, every woman must have a male guardian - a father, brother, husband, or even a son - who has the authority to make a range of decisions on her behalf, she explained. The new initiative will kick start next summer.

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On Tuesday Prince Khaled bin Salman, the kingdom's United States ambassador, spoke of it being "an historic and big day in our kingdom", adding, "I think our leadership understands that our society is ready".

The King decreed that a commission of representatives of the country's Ministries of Internal Affairs, Finance, Labor and Social Development be convened to study the necessary measures to provide women with the right to drive cars. According to Saudi Arabia's bond prospectus, employment by women in the private workforce has swelled about 10 percent to 550,651 in the six years through December 31, while female employment growth is outstripping that for men.

How have Saudi women been punished for driving?

"It is the natural path", she said.

How do women there get around?

Ms Al Azzouni said she hopes that the next steps will include the government focusing on the country's infrastructure and public transport.

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Driving is a logical step toward greater parity for women in society - namely the reform of laws that require them to gain permission from a male guardian to travel and marry, said al Rashid.

Men and women danced in the streets to drums and electronic music, in scenes that are a stunning anomaly in a country known for its tight gender segregation and an austere vision of Islam. In a blog post a year ago, Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal wrote it was "high time that women started driving their cars".

Amnesty International said at the time that she had been denied access to a lawyer and had not been allowed to contact her family.

The country's top religious body, the Council of Senior Scholars, praised the decision in a statement on Twitter.

However, many of those same ultraconservative clerics, who wield power and influence in the judiciary and education sectors, have also spoken out in the past against women driving, playing sports or entering the workforce.

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Saudi Arabia wins plaudits for ending ban on women driving