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On the brink of change after Saudi Arabia decides to lift its women driving ban

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By Boshika Gupta

Years and years of fighting and activism have finally paid off for many women in Saudi Arabia. On September 27, a royal decree lifted the driving ban imposed on women in the region. The landmark decision led to jubilation within the kingdom as well outside it with many welcoming it with arms wide open.

The amendment will come into effect in June next year. A newly formed committee will present its findings on how to implement the policy and make the transition a smooth process. There’s a lot of excitement already with the possibilities that the new judgment brings for women in the highly conservative region. For example, women will be able to pick up and drop their children easily to school, many families will be able to save money spent on chauffeurs and most importantly, women will have the right to drive to a place they wish to go to without feeling dependent on someone else.

Not being forced to seek permission from a male guardian to legally obtain a driving license is a huge step in the right direction. The guardianship laws are rather strict and Saudi men are required to sign off all major decisions for women in their family.

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The decision is still being processed by many in a kingdom that’s accustomed to rules being formulated based on a rigid reading of Islamic teachings.   Senior Saudi clerics issued public statements cautiously, keeping in mind the need to change an expected conservative pushback.

The commission of top Islamic clerics said on Twitter: “May God bless the king who looks out for the interest of his people and his country in accordance with sharia law.”

Meanwhile, the former head of the religious police, Dr Abdel-Latif al Sheikh said, “Women driving is not against sharia and women will choose what best suits them.”

However, there’s still a long way to go before women in Saudi Arabia can enjoy equal status with men in their kingdom.  The country’s female citizens were the only ones in the world who were banned from taking control behind the wheel until now.  All Saudi women must seek permission from a male relative – a husband, a brother, a father or a son who approves major decisions.

This means they must ask their guardian to allow them to marry, apply for a passport, travel and explore other countries, rent an apartment of their own, go ahead with filing a legal claim and in certain cases, get healthcare. A woman cannot go abroad on a government scholarship to study without receiving permission and once she gets it, she must have a male guardian by her side.

While the government does not ask its women citizens to seek permission before working, employers can and occasionally do ask for it.  A woman who has been in prison cannot leave it until a male guardian says she can, according to Human Rights Watch. Moreover, the guardianship system poses a major barrier to the development of Saudi Arabia’s economy.

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As it turns out, Saudi Arabia did sign on to the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in 2000. This means it agreed to get rid of the guardianship system years ago but hasn’t gotten around to doing it yet.

While the Saudi government has beckoned change and is listening to its citizens and human rights advocates all across the globe, there’s a still lot that must happen to allow its women to participate and do their own bit for society.

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