Saudi Arabia to let women drive

September 26, 2017

Saudi Arabia announced on Tuesday that, beginning next summer, it will undo a longstanding ban that had prevented women from driving cars.

A decree issued by Saudi Arabia's King Salman was announced simultaneously on state-run television in Saudi Arabia and at a media event in Washington, D.C., The New York Times reports. Women will be allowed to drive cars beginning in June of 2018. That gives the ultra-conservative Middle Eastern country nearly a year to set up driver's licensing for women and to train police officers on how to interact with the opposite gender.

MORE: Uber launches in Saudi Arabia, Saudi women boycott it

In Saudi Arabia, a strict interpretation of Islam called Wahhabism grants women far fewer rights than men. Women are expected to be homemakers and are rarely allowed to be in public without a male chaperone.  In recent years, Saudi Arabia has increasingly granted more rights to women, but most workplaces remain male-dominated. Many office buildings lack separate restroom facilities, for instance.

King Fahd Road in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

King Fahd Road in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

It's not clear just how the Gulf nation will handle an influx of licensed women drivers beginning in June, but the decree is the latest in a series of small liberalization moves designed to reduce gender inequality in the kingdom. Most recently, Saudi women were permitted to sit in a special family section at the country's National Day celebrations on Saturday.

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Dozens of Saudi women grabbed international headlines in 2011 when they took the wheel in several cities. One protester was arrested and detained for a day after she posted a video online that showed her driving a car, and another woman was sentenced to 10 lashings. Ultimately, the king pardoned them, but they signed statements saying that they would not drive again. Now, it appears those protesters will be able to drive legally.

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