Saudi Arabian Women Get Behind The Wheel For The First Time In 60 Years, As Driving Ban Ends

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Saudi Arabian women are getting behind the wheel again, after the conservative and deeply-religious Muslim country lifted a 60-year-old ban on women drivers, BBC News is reporting. Nevertheless, many women fear harassment for driving, even though it’s legal again.

Since 1957, women in Saudi Arabia have been under a de facto ban on driving. That’s because, though there’s no specific ban on women drivers, per se, the government has refused to issue driver’s licenses to them, effectively making the practice of women driving illegal.

However, last year, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud said that the monarchy will once again be issuing driver’s licenses to women.

Part of the reason for that reversal has to do with the Kingdom’s dependence on oil for its economy. As oil becomes less and less desirable a means of producing energy, the Saudi royal family is attempting to at once diversify the economy and address its unemployment problem. Part of that approach means eliminating barriers to women being employed; as of this writing, only 22 percent of Saudi women participate in the work force. The Saudi government would like to see that number increased to 30 percent by 2030. And in allowing women to drive, the government hopes women will have better access to employment.

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Meanwhile, a new cottage industry in Saudi Arabia has sprung up: female-only driving schools with women instructors. Thousands of women have already signed up, and estimates are that three million of Saudi Arabia’s 15.1 million women will soon be licensed to drive.

It’s not all good news, however. An estimated 1 million or so foreign workers, mostly from impoverished India and Bangladesh, will likely be out of jobs as the women who hired them to drive them and do errands for them will now be able to drive themselves. Although, as Ford spokeswoman Crystal Worthem says, many Saudi women will continue to employ their domestic help to drive their children to school.

Also, as Al Jazeera reports, just because the government will be issuing driver’s licenses to women doesn’t mean that deeply-entrenched misogyny in the Kingdom is going to go away overnight. A Jeddah businessman who asked to only be identified as Omar said that driving in Saudi Arabia is bad enough for men. For women, who have few legal rights and legal protections, a woman getting behind the wheel is tantamount to risking her own life.

“People are scared about their mothers and sisters driving and potentially getting harassed. My mother and sister have already issued their licenses, but driving [in Saudi Arabia] is a little wild. Adding women to mix will be worrying, especially for the first few months.”