Riyadh’s Consultative Assembly, known as the Shura Council, is to review one of Saudi Arabia’s most polarising domestic issues: Its ban on female driving.
A member of the council said a recommendation to grant the kingdom’s female populace the right to obtain driver’s licences would be proposed for the advisory body to vote on within a month.
“A significant number of assembly members are concerned with the issue, with 20 members openly supporting the initiative,” an unidentified member of the Shura Council told the Okaz daily in Saudi Arabia.
A similar campaign was advanced by three female council members in 2013 but was rejected for discussion by the Shura Council.
Saudi Arabia’s official press agency issued a statement at the time saying the issue was “irrelevant” to the discussions pertaining to the kingdom’s Transport Ministry and did not fall in its sphere of responsibilities. This was preceded by a petition signed by 3,000 Saudis urging the Shura Council to debate the issue.
The Shura Council is an advisory body of 150 members, including 30 women. Proposals can be discussed if more than 50% of members vote in favour. While the Shura Council cannot pass laws, it can forward legislation to be approved by the king.
The Saudi female driving ban is a contentious issue, especially as the kingdom pushes for reform and modernisation. Many citizens, including a significant number of women, support the ban.
The ban was unofficial for decades but codified into law after 47 female Saudi activists drove in Riyadh in protest in November 1990. They were imprisoned for one day and had their passports confiscated. An official statement was released stating the female drivers had contradicted “Islamic conduct” and that women were banned from driving in Saudi Arabia.
Since then there have been sporadic acts of defiance but none as prominent as the 1990 protest.
The kingdom has made significant strides in women’s rights in recent years, beginning with initiatives launched by the late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and carried through and accentuated by the reigning monarch, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.
During King Abdullah’s reign, the first co-ed university was launched. The late monarch also appointed the first female cabinet member, Norah al-Faiz, who served as deputy minister of education.
In 2012, Saudi women participated in the Olympics for the first time and restrictions on women in education and employment were eased. This prompted Christine Lagarde of the International Monetary Fund to call the late king a “strong advocate for women.”
In 2015, Saudi women ran for the first time in the kingdom’s elections and 20 were elected to seats in the municipal council. In June, Saudi women celebrated a decree by King Salman easing aspects of the country’s male guardianship system, including women being given independent access to government services, jobs, education and health care.
The following month it was decided that, starting in 2018, Saudi girls in public school would be permitted to have physical education lessons as part of the school curriculum.
The kingdom’s Vision 2030 economic initiative’s mission statement refers to women as a “great asset” that can help develop the kingdom and its economy, leading a significant part of the population to believe the ban on female driving would be lifted in the near future.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.