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Saudi Arabia says ban on women driving to end next year

Saudi Arabia says it will allow women to drive for the first time in the ultra-conservative kingdom. (Sept. 27, 2017) (Sign up for our free video newsletter here http://bit.ly/2n6VKPR)

Saudi Arabia announced Tuesday that women will be able to legally drive starting next year, moving to shatter a longtime taboo seen as emblematic of the conservative kingdom's repressive treatment of women.

The royal decree lifting the ban on women operating motor vehicles is one of a number of measures pushed by the conservative kingdom's reform-minded young crown prince, who has pledged to revisit some of the kingdom's most controversial strictures on women and their place in society.

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The move triggered a joyous outpouring on social media from women's activists and their supporters in the kingdom and around the world, with many using the hashtag #women2drive.

The rejoicing, though, was laced with reminders that Saudi Arabia remains a country in which women face suffocating social restrictions — for example, needing permission from male relatives, sometimes their own young sons, to exercise basic freedoms such as travel.

"The rain begins with a single drop," tweeted Manal Sharif, a Saudi author and professor who was arrested for driving in 2011.

For Saudi women, many of whom are highly educated, the driving ban has for long decades dented dignity, thwarted professional aspirations and rendered the most ordinary of daily activities — getting to work, socializing, running errands — an expensive and frustrating ordeal.

Over the years, female activists who defiantly took the wheel faced vilification by clerics, lost prominent positions and endured sustained harassment by authorities. Following Tuesday's announcement, jubilant activists posted an "honor roll" of those arrested since 1990, when the protests began, for the punishable offense of trying to drive a car.

"We have been calling for this, and lobbying for this, and expecting this, any day and any year," Maha Akeel, a 46-year-old writer from the Red Sea port city of Jidda, said in a telephone interview. "This gives women more independence and confidence, and empowers women to know that they can manage their daily life."

At the same time, the lifting of the ban — if it goes ahead as promised next year, when driver's licenses will be issued to women for the first time — marks the start of a long road.

Many now fear a strong backlash from conservative clerics, although the announcement was coupled with a reminder that the state remained the "guardian" of Islamic values.

The Saudi government announced that a royal decree from King Salman had declared that driver's licenses would be issued to women beginning in June 2018.

But many saw the fingerprints of the king's ambitious 32-year-old son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has elbowed rivals aside and embarked on a series of reforms meant to present a more palatable and progressive face to the outside world.

The official statement said a panel would be formed to look into how to implement the order, with a report to be submitted in 30 days. The eight-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.

One Saudi news report said driving women's driving schools would be opened in the capital, Riyadh, and in Jidda, but did not say when.

"Saudi Arabia is changing. We have dynamic leadership. We are … empowering women and youth to play a greater role in the Saudi economy and take better advantage of the increasing opportunities that result from the kingdom's modernization and economic reform initiatives," the kingdom's ambassador to the U.S., Prince Khalid bin Salman, said in a statement.

"The issue of women driving was never a religious or a cultural issue," the statement said, noting that a majority of the country's top clerical body "saw no obstacle to permitting" women to drive. "This was a societal issue. Today, we have a young and vibrant society and the time had come to make this move."

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Depriving women of the right to drive has long been a public-relations black eye for the kingdom, whose repression of women is routinely denounced by human rights groups and Western governments, though the issue was not raised publicly by President Trump when he visited in May.

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Saudi Arabia practices a strict form of Islam, and ultraconservative clerics see women behind the wheel as a gateway to dissolute behavior. In the past, the ban has been justified with "health reasons," with one cleric declaring it would result in childbearing problems or infertility.

In Washington, the State Department hailed the news.

"We are happy! We are happy to hear that!" said State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert, sounding genuinely excited. "It's a great step in the right direction."

Mohammed Alyahya, a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council and a Saudi expert, described the decree as "historic," tweeting that it was a "proud day" for Saudi Arabia.

Aside from quelling some of the international criticism directed at the Saudi leadership, the ban's end will have major economic repercussions. The expense of hiring drivers has put a major damper on women's participation in the workforce, and allowing women to drive could lead to a boom in female employment.

There will be other financial fallout as well. In recent years, ride-sharing companies, including Uber and Careem, a Dubai-based service similar to Uber, had entered aggressively into the Saudi market — in part because half the kingdom's population represented potential captive customers. The expansion came with the encouragement of the government, which gave a $3.5-billion cash infusion to Uber out of the country's sovereign fund in 2016.

In Jidda, Sahar Nasief learned of the planned scrapping of the ban from her son, who called to congratulate her.

Then her mother phoned. "We had been dreaming about this and now our dreams are coming true," Nasief said she told her mother.

The 64-year-old Nasief sounded like a giddy teenager when she contemplated her first legal spin at the wheel. She had tried it once in 2013, and was stopped by police.

It was a deflating experience, she recalled, saying she had endured officers' gibes about how women shouldn't be allowed to drive. It took a week to get her car back from the authorities.

Now she reveled in the prospect of newfound vehicular freedom.

"All I want to do is get in my car," she said, "and drive to the grocery store with the music blasting!"

Loujain Hathloul, an activist who was detained for more than two months in 2014 for defying the ban, and who was briefly arrested again this year, took to her widely followed Twitter account to express her joy in a heartfelt manner, but in keeping with cultural norms.

"Al hamdu l'illeh," she tweeted. "Praise God."

Special correspondent Bulos reported from Beirut, staff writer King from Washington and staff writer Etehad from Los Angeles. Staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Washington contributed to this report.

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UPDATES:

4 p.m.: This article was updated with additional reaction and details on the kingdom's announcement.

3:01 p.m.: This article was updated with reaction, background.

12:48 p.m.: This article was updated throughout with staff reporting.

This article was originally published at 12:10 p.m.

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