Saudi Arabia allows females driving cars for the first time

Rijadh traffic on the King Fahd Road

Saudi Arabia on Tuesday announced that women will be allowed to drive for the first time in the ultra-conservative kingdom next summer, fulfilling a key demand of women's rights activists who faced detention for defying the ban.

Saudi women who have spent years fighting for the right to drive are today celebrating a win, but are already focused on their next big fight: doing away with the kingdom's male guardianship system.

"We enjoy some rights that other celebrated democracies do not enjoy and yet everything was brushed under the all-encompassing question of the right of women to drive", she said.

King Salman has issued a royal order that will allow women to get behind the wheel following decades of protests.

The issue of women driving has always been divisive, pitting the guardians of Saudi Arabia's strict Islamic lifestyle against those who want a more liberal one. Internet videos showed a handful of women driving cars overnight, even though the ban has not been officially lifted.

The change is expected to come into force in June next year. Those against allowing women behind the wheel have argued that it should not be allowed on various grounds, including that it leads to female promiscuity and can damage ovaries.

The more conservative aspects of Saudi Arabian society have not been silent.

The kingdom will issue driving licences to women from next June, in the most striking reform yet credited to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, despite the risk of a backlash from hardliners. A committee has been formed to implement the ruling and it will present recommendations within 30 days. The 8-month delay will allow the government to create what it described as needed infrastructure for dealing with women on the road, including the hiring of additional female police officers as well as driving instructors.

But the campaigner said the battle is not over, with a major setback for women in Saudi Arabia that needs to "disappear".

The move is part of Vision 2030, King Salman's plan for a modern Saudi Arabia and a larger effort to encourage women to enter the workforce.

"This decision is a long time coming".

"The fact that they have been arrested without significant unrest being triggered is likely to have made the Saudi leadership more confident that it can make (social) change without much in the way of opposition".

At the State Department, spokeswoman Heather Nauert said, "We're happy".

"We believe women have rights in Islam that they've yet to obtain", he said.

Then her mother phoned.

"We see that political and civil rights movements - anyone who speaks out and criticises the Government - is dealt with quite swiftly", she said.

"It's better for her to drive", the 25-year-old said. When out in public they have to wear a long coat called an abaya over their outfit and most women wear headscarves.

Now she reveled in the prospect of newfound vehicular freedom.

"I haven't slept since last night", exclaimed Nora, her eyes glowing, rimmed with black liner.

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