By Ben Hubbard
September 27, 2017
Rights groups attacked it. Conservatives defended it. Comedians sang about it. A king had vowed to end it, but died without doing so.
Then, in an announcement on state television, Saudi Arabia let its people, and the world, know on Tuesday that it was finally dropping the ban on letting women drive cars.
While the change does not take effect until next June, the announcement was so abrupt it stunned the country. Many Saudis took to social media on Wednesday to express their joy, or consternation, over the end of the driving ban and to debate what other relaxations might be on the way.
“It didn’t solve all the issues, but it made them one less,” said Muna AbuSulayman, a Saudi television presenter. She called the change “one step closer to being a full citizen.”
For decades, the issue of women driving has been a key battlefield for the fight over the nature of the Saudi state and its future.
Built on an alliance between a royal family and the descendants of an ultraconservative Muslim cleric, Saudi Arabia has struggled throughout its history with how to reconcile modernization with loyalty to religious heritage.
That debate heated up as oil wealth enriched the state, bringing in unfamiliar customs and technologies like television, public education and automobiles.
Over time, competing camps dug in around women and the right to drive.
For liberals, the driving ban was a blot on the national brand that was hampering modernization and weakening the economy.
Conservatives, including powerful clerics employed by the state, thought that allowing women to drive would be a crack in the dam that would allow secularism to flood in, washing away the kingdom’s unique Islamic identity.
The royal decree announced on Tuesday handed victory in that battle to the reformers, who had gained an advantage in recent years because of demographics, economics and the country’s young leadership, analysts said.
Saudi leaders, who have been criticized for the war in Yemen, the blockade of Qatar and a range of human rights issues, clearly hoped the step would help the kingdom’s reputation.
“There is no wrong time to do the right thing,” Prince Khalid bin Salman, the Saudi ambassador to Washington and a son of King Salman, told reporters after the change was announced.
The government also worked behind the scenes to control the message.
At least eight prominent women’s activists received calls and text messages from Saudi security officials warning them not to tweet or speak to the news media about the issue, according to three Saudi activists.
They presumed the government did not want to give credit to activists for prompting the change and spoke on condition of anonymity so as not to jeopardize the women — or themselves.
Many women cheered the decision, calling it a final victory in a long campaign for social change.
Manal al-Sherif, who was jailed for having posted videos of herself driving and who wrote a book about her activism, said her life had tracked the wider social changes in the kingdom.
Born into a poor conservative family in Mecca, Ms. Sherif, now 38, was taught that women were to remain at home and that good Muslims were to avoid “infidels” who did not share their faith, she said by phone from Australia, where she now lives.
Her worldview changed when as a university student in the Red Sea port city of Jidda, she saw women who did not cover their faces in public and even had boyfriends, though covertly.
Then she got a job with the state oil company, Saudi Aramco. On its sprawling compound women enjoy greater freedoms than elsewhere in the kingdom, including the ability to drive.
She said that the status of women in Saudi Arabia had been used by the government over the years to placate conservatives.
“Our rights as women were always used in a political game, and that is what we wanted to stop,” she said. “That really kept the country behind.”
She credited King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, another of the king’s sons, with making the decisions necessary for the kingdom to advance.
“The government took the right decision,” she said. “Finally, they had the guts to say, ‘We were wrong.’”
It was difficult to immediately gauge reactions to the rescinded ban among more conservative Saudis. The government recently arrested more than two dozen people, including prominent clerics, some of whom had criticized government policies.
Three clerics employed by the government declined to comment when asked for their thoughts on the rescinded ban.
“Hahahahahahaha,” one responded on WhatsApp, offering no further comment.
Social media provided a glimpse.
By mid-afternoon on Wednesday, the Arabic Hashtag “The people reject women driving” had appeared on 335,000 tweets, while the Hashtag “The king is victorious for women driving” had appeared in only 33,700 tweets, according to Twitter.
But many users used the Hashtags to join discussions, even if they disagreed with their message.
Even long-time campaigners said they expected some resistance.
“We’re a religious country,” said Fawziah Al-Bakr, a professor who has been campaigning for the right to drive for nearly three decades.
But religion had nothing to do with the issue, she said, noting that women in other predominately Muslim countries like Egypt, Sudan and Pakistan have been driving for a long time.
“All these women are Muslim and yet they are driving,” she said. “Not being able to drive has nothing to do with Islam.”
Previous reforms have been met with great resistance in the kingdom. Conservatives campaigned against the introduction of television, fearing it would fill Saudi homes with un-Islamic images.
Now many Saudi clerics have their own shows and are enthusiastic users of social media.
They also tried to prevent girls’ education.
Now many of their daughters are studying in Saudi universities, and even in the United States.
For many Saudi women, gaining the right to drive is not the end of the struggle. Many hope the government’s next step will be to lift its so-called “guardianship laws,” which require women to have the permission of a male “guardian” in order to get a passport, travel abroad or undergo certain medical procedures.
That could take time, but Ms. AbuSulayman, the television presenter, said the trajectory was clear.
About two thirds of the kingdom’s 22 million citizens are under 30 and they will grow up seeing women differently than their elders, she said. Many will not remember when women could not drive.
“I actually hate driving,” she said, laughing, but still planned to get a Saudi license.
Yousur Al-Hlou contributed reporting from New York.