Saudi Arabia will allow women to drive from next June, state media said Tuesday, in a historic decision that makes the Gulf kingdom the last country in the world to permit women behind the wheel.
The longstanding driving ban was seen globally as a symbol of repression of women in the Gulf kingdom and comes after a years-long resistance from female activists.
The decision, which risks riling religious conservatives, is part of Saudi Arabia’s ambitious reform push aimed at adapting to a post-oil era and improving its battered global reputation for its human rights record.
“King Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud has issued decree authorising the issuance of drivers’ licences for women in the kingdom,” Saudi state TV said.
“The decree will take effect in June 2018.”
Saudi Arabia will use the “preparatory period” until then to expand licensing facilities and develop the infrastructure to accommodate millions of new drivers, the announcement added.
Conservative clerics in Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy ruled according to sharia law, have justified the ban over the years, arguing that it would lead to promiscuity. One of them claimed that driving harmed women’s ovaries.
Many women’s rights activists were jailed over the years for defiantly flouting the ban.
The shock announcement was met with a mix of euphoria and disbelief.
The announcement follows a dazzling gender-mixed celebration of Saudi national day at the weekend, the first of its kind, which aimed to spotlight the kingdom’s reform push, analysts say, despite a backlash from religious conservatives.