In major shift, Saudi Arabia to allow women to drive

In major shift, Saudi Arabia to allow women to drive

Saudi women will soon be allowed to drive, removing one barrier to equality in a kingdom often criticized for its stance on human and women's rights.

King Salman issued the order on Tuesday, according to state media, which said that the decree also created a committee to implement the change. 

His country has been the only one in the world to prevent women from getting behind the wheel.

The decree targets June 2018 as the date when the new drivers licenses would be available to half of the country’s population, who continue to face harsh rules including the necessity of a male chaperone when they leave the house.

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One cleric in the country said in 2013 that driving could damage women's ovaries, and another said last week that women's brains shrink to one quarter the size of a man's because they go shopping.

In recent years women in the Middle Eastern nation have taken to the streets, in cars, to the policy, which comes from a strict interpretation of Islam called Wahhabism.

Saudi women carry national flags as they arrive outside a stadium for the first time to attend an event in the capital Riyadh last Friday. (FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images)

Manal al-Sharif, who earned a license in the United Arab Emirates, filmed herself breaking the ban in 2011 and was arrested for doing so before international outrage led to her release.

"I believe that when women drive in my country, that will liberate them," she told the Sydney Morning Herald last month from her home in Australia, adding that it could help women get around the chaperone rule.

"Saudi Arabia will never be the same again," she said Tuesday.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said that the administration is "happy" with the move, which she called "a great step in the right direction for that country."

"I welcome Saudi Arabia's decision to lift the ban on women drivers. An important step in the right direction," United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres said.

Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz issued the decree on Tuesday. (FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images)

The right to drive, described as a major victory for women in Saudi Arabia, comes after other smaller wins for equality.

Women were allowed to paticipate in the country's National Day celebrations for the first time on Saturday, sitting in a special section for families at a stadium in the capital Riyadh.

In 2015 Saudi women were allowed to vote in elections for the first time.

With News Wire Services

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