(Beirut) – Saudi authorities, in ending the ban on women driving, should not impose any additional restrictions that it does not impose on men, Human Rights Watch said today. Saudi authorities announced on September 26, 2017, that the government would end the longstanding ban on women driving cars in Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi Press Agency reported that the ban is set to end in June 2018, after a joint ministerial committee makes “the necessary arrangements to implement it” in 30 days. Saudi Arabia continues to impose other restrictions on women’s travel, including requiring the approval of a male relative to obtain a passport or travel abroad. The government should end those restrictions.
“Ending the driving ban is a major victory for Saudi women who have courageously worked for decades to confront systematic discrimination,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Now Saudi authorities should guarantee that women are allowed to drive on the same basis as men so that no Saudi women are deprived of benefiting from this reform.”
Saudi Arabia announced the end of the ban via the Saudi Press Agency and at a news conference at the Saudi embassy in Washington, DC. Reuters reported that the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Khalid bin Salman, stated that women would not require their guardian’s permission to obtain a license and would be permitted to drive without their guardian present.
The press announcement states that the majority of the members of Saudi Arabia’s Council of Senior Religious Scholars, the country’s highest religious body, supported ending the ban provided there are “necessary regulatory and Islamic law guarantees to avoid that which leads to what is forbidden.”
Previous proposals to end the driving ban have included restrictions such as limiting driving licenses to women age 30 and over or allowing driving only during daylight hours. In November 2016, Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, an influential businessman, publicly called for an end to the ban, but his proposal stated that women should not be permitted to drive “outside city limits” and insisted that the government could not force men to allow female relatives to drive.
Saudi Arabia was the only country in the world that prohibited women from driving. In November 1990, 47 women drove in a convoy in Riyadh to protest the customary ban. Traffic police stopped them, took them into custody, and released them only after their male guardians signed statements that the women would not attempt to drive again. Following the protest, the then-chairman of the Council of Senior Religious Scholars issued a religious edict (fatwa) prohibiting driving because women driving “leads to abuses….” The then-interior minister issued a decree prohibiting driving on the basis of the fatwa.
Women have openly defied the ban on several occasions but most notably in 2011 and 2013. Saudi women activists in 2011 and 2013 organized a coordinated “Women2Drive” campaign in which they filmed themselves driving on Saudi streets across the country. Many were arrested and forced to officially declare that they would refrain from driving in the future. Some even faced trial.
Despite this positive announced step, Saudi Arabia continues to impose other restrictions on women, including on travel abroad. A July 2016 Human Rights Watch report documented the impact of the country’s male guardianship system on Saudi women. Under the system, every woman must have a male guardian – a father, brother, husband, or even a son – who has the authority to make a range of critical decisions on her behalf.
Women are required to receive guardian approval to apply for a passport, travel outside the country, study abroad on a government scholarship, get married, or exit prison. They regularly face difficulty conducting a range of transactions – from renting an apartment to filing legal claims – without a male relative’s consent or presence. Women also face difficulties in making decisions for their children on an equal basis with men.
In April, King Salman issued an order stipulating that government agencies cannot deny women access to government services because they do not have a male guardian’s consent unless existing regulations require it. If adequately enforced, the order could end arbitrary guardian consent requirements that government bureaucracies impose on women. Under the order, all government agencies were to provide a list by mid-July 2017 of procedures that require male guardian approval. But since July, the government has been silent on this.
“Saudi authorities should move now to dismantle the male guardianship system entirely, which remains the biggest impediment to women exercising their rights,” Whitson said.