A woman drives a car in Saudi Arabia October 22, 2013. A conservative Saudi Arabian cleric has said women who drive risk damaging their ovaries and bearing children with clinical problems, countering activists who are trying to end the Islamic kingdom's male-only driving rules. REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser
Faisal Al Nasser—REUTERS
By Tara John
September 28, 2017

On Sept. 26, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman lifted a ban on female drivers, reversing a long-held tradition of the patriarchy.

GREEN LIGHT

Women have been forbidden from driving in Saudi Arabia for decades, with offenders fined, jailed or even beaten. But beginning next summer, licenses will be issued to any woman who applies for one, with no need for permission from a male guardian. The announcement follows decades of civil disobedience by female protesters demanding the right to drive.

CHANGING GEARS

The change of policy comes as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attempts to modernize and diversify the kingdom’s oil-reliant economy. Boosting the workforce with women is his ultimate goal. But moves toward gender equality risk riling conservative Saudi clerics, who adhere to a rigidly patriarchal interpretation of Sunni Islamic teachings.

STUCK IN REVERSE

Licenses are a step in the right direction, but the kingdom still subjects women to plenty of other stringent rules. They are bound by a restrictive dress code, and guardianship laws give male relatives the right to prevent their wives, sisters or daughters from doing basic tasks like traveling, opening a bank account or having certain medical procedures.

This appears in the October 09, 2017 issue of TIME.

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