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After 27 Years of Determined Protest, Saudi Women Win the Right to Drive

Activists celebrate step towards equality while acknowledging that the kingdom has a long way to go

Saudi Arabia announced women in the kingdom will be allowed to drive starting in June 2018, after years of protests. (Photo: @noconversion/Twitter)

Rights groups applauded Saudi Arabia's announcement on Tuesday that it will allow women to drive beginning next June, after decades of criticism from other countries and campaigning by Saudi women.

CodePink co-founder Medea Benjamin, who wrote the book Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the U.S.-Saudi Connection last year, highlighted the sacrifices made by women who have fought for a lift of the driving ban.

"Saudi Arabia is still the most gender-segregated society in the world...Until women have the basic rights about determining their own lives, they will never be free."—Medea Benjamin, CodePink

"For the past 27 years, since 1990, women have been organizing protests and petition drives to gain the right to drive," said Benjamin. "Many have been arrested, jailed, lost their jobs and harassed for their peaceful protests of simply getting behind the wheel and driving."

The inability to legally drive has caused some women to opt out of the workforce, as much of their paychecks are spent on car services. The New York Times noted how economic factors and the kingdom's concern with its image may have played into the monarchy's decision to remove the ban:

The decision highlights the damage that the no-driving policy has done to the kingdom's international reputation and its hopes for a public relations benefit from the reform. Saudi leaders also hope the new policy will help the economy by increasing women's participation in the workplace...Low oil prices have limited the government jobs that many Saudis have long relied on, and the kingdom is trying to push more citizens, including women, into gainful employment.

Still, Benjamin said the many women who risked their lives protesting for the right to drive should be given recognition, lest the country's leaders attempt to frame the decision as a purely practical one.

"Credit should go to 27 years of women’s defiance," she said.

Other supporters celebrated the end of the ban on social media.

Benjamin cautioned against heaping too much praise on Saudi Arabia, where women still have to get permission from men in their families in order to work, travel, and otherwise live freely—even without the driving ban.

"Saudi Arabia is still the most gender-segregated society in the world, where the male guardianship system gives men the right to make the most critical life decisions for females," said Benjamin. "This includes when to marry, who to marry, where to work, where to go to school. They must also be completely covered in public. Until women have the basic rights about determining their own lives, they will never be free."

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