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Saudi women just won the right to drive

A royal decree was issued this afternoon lifting the ban.

Saudi activist Manal Al Sharif, who now lives in Dubai, flashes the sign for victory as she drives her car in the Gulf Emirate city on October 22, 2013, PHOTO/MARWAN NAAMANI

Saudi Arabia’s extreme repression of women has long been illustrated by their prohibition from driving. Some women who have protested that restriction — or flouted it — have been harshly penalized or arrested.

Until today.

Late Tuesday night local time, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman issued a royal decree declaring that women will soon be allowed to apply for drivers’ licenses and drive legally.

The decree is a win for women, but it’s also a tactical win for the state. Refusing to allow women to drive has been a public relations disaster for the Saudis for years. Giving them the keys, they hope, will not only ease public international pressure but also give women the chance to contribute more to the economy.

Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of Islam. The ban on women drivers has long been explained as being religiously motivated, but it is the only country in the world, of any religion, that had instituted such a ban.

The drivers’ licenses won’t be issued immediately — the decree explained that the rollout will take place in June 2018, after government ministries have had a chance to work out the details of implementation.

Of course, Saudi women will still be subjected to the repressive male guardianship system, which requires women to seek permission from a male relative (father, brother, husband, son) to do almost anything, from getting married to working outside the home to even basic freedom of movement within and outside the country. Saudi women were only given the right to vote in December 2015.

But for some time now, there have been rumblings that this one particular form of repression might be eased. Last November, Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal tweeted, “Stop the debate ... time for women to drive.”

The tweet was accompanied by a link to a longer argument posted to his website in which he mapped out the monetary benefit of letting women drive. Not allowing women to drive, he explained, has created a fully paid chauffeur class composed of thousands of (largely foreign-born) drivers taking up funds that might otherwise be funneled into the Saudi economy.

For years, Saudi women activists have lobbied and protested for the right to drive, sometimes doing so at their own peril. “We are looking for a normal way of life,” Madiha al-Ajroush, a trained psychologist, told the New York Times in 2013, “for me to get into my car and do something as small as get myself a cappuccino or something as grand as taking my child to the emergency room.”