Saudi Arabia announced Tuesday that it will allow women to drive for the first time in the ultra-conservative kingdom, the only country in the world to bar females from this practice.
For years Saudi Arabia has garnered negative attention around the world for detaining women who defied the ban on driving.
Activists are celebrating the news as a major development in a country where women face extreme social and personal restrictions as a result of the kingdom’s strict interpretation of Islam. Women are not allowed to travel without the permission of a male guardian. They also must cover their hair and bodies in public under the law.
Manal al-Sharif, was arrested for breaking the law in 2011, when she filmed herself cruising behind the wheel of a car and uploaded the video to YouTube. Eventually released from jail after international outcry, the arrest only made her more determined to speak out for Saudi women's rights. Her passion led her to write a memoir, Daring to Drive: a Saudi Woman's Awakening.
"My society is very conservative. Women are treated as minors who need protection and permission of men for almost everything," al-Sharif said in an interview in July with USA TODAY.
The developments follow a decade of incremental change in Saudi Arabia with more women working in retail and being appointed top executive roles at the Saudi stock exchange and Dammam Airport. Women can now also be appointed to the Shoura Council and run in municipal elections.
When cars came to Saudi Arabia, society accepted the norm that women do not drive, al-Sharif said.
"On Nov. 6, 1990, 47 women tried to break that norm by driving. But at that time, the religious establishment was angry over arrival of western troops in Saudi Arabia in the wake of first Iraq war. They directed all their anger against these women drivers calling them a bad influence. They were denounced as immoral women out to destroy Saudi society," al-Sharif said. "Two days after the protest, the Saudi grand mufti issued a decree that driving by women was un-Islamic. The official argument: Women who drive will become immoral."
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