Women Now Allowed to Drive Cars In Saudia Arabia

ELEANOR HALL: In Saudi Arabia, women are celebrating the royal decree that will finally allow them to drive in their own country.

The Saudi King's decree was preceded by a domestic campaign by a group of courageous Saudi women, as Sean Rubinsztein-Dunlop reports.

SEAN RUBINSZTEIN-DUNLOP: The historic announcement was made on Saudi national TV and on Twitter.

RANEEN BUKHARI: I couldn't believe what I was reading. I was screaming, I was so happy. I called my mum, I was talking to all my friends. It's really, I feel like I won something.

SEAN RUBINSZTEIN-DUNLOP: Thirty-year-old activist Raneen Bukhari was watching a movie in the Saudi city of Jeddah when the news of the King's decree came through.

RANEEN BUKHARI: My phone started ringing from many messages that I was receiving from friends and family and my timeline was exploding with everybody talking about it, and I knew that it was happening.

Even though I felt that it was coming soon, I didn't expect it to happen this year and I didn't know that it was going to affect me so much.

SEAN RUBINSZTEIN-DUNLOP: Soon after, the Saudi ambassador, Abdullah al Mouallimi, made the announcement to the United Nations.

ABDULLAH AL MOUALLIMI: A few minutes ago a royal decree has been issued in Saudi Arabia giving women the right to drive.

This is a historic day for Saudi society, for men and women, and we can now say at last.

SEAN RUBINSZTEIN-DUNLOP: There are few details to King Salman's decree except that women will be eligible for driver’s licences from next June.

The King's decision follows an escalating campaign by a group of courageous women, including Raneen Bukhari.

RANEEN BUKHARI: It's something that women have been asking for for decades. Women have gone to jail, women have been shamed and women have been fired because they've been asking for this simple right.

It's really a giant deal that this is happening because women have been stuck in so many ways more than just, okay, I can't go to the grocery store but I also, if I have an emergency, I can't take my family to the hospital.

If I get out of work, I have to wait for somebody to pick me up, if I get out of school or university, I have to beg somebody for a ride or I have to have a specific driver pick me up.

It's always been a point of pain for so many women.

MADEHA AL AJROUSH: The nation used to stop at time of children going out of school, fathers used to go out and pick up children from school and now the nation will operate very normally.

It's a celebration for men and women. It's not a women issues, actually a family issue.

SEAN RUBINSZTEIN-DUNLOP: Madeha al Ajroush is Saudi Arabia's most prominent female rights activist.

She took part in the first driving protest there in 1990, and was fired from her job and banned from travelling.

MADEHA AL AJROUSH: I'm so, so happy, I'm out of words. I'm in shock and happy at the same time.

SEAN RUBINSZTEIN-DUNLOP: Madeha al Ajroush told the BBC the change is part of a drive by the royal family to modernise Saudi Arabia.

MADEHA AL AJROUSH: We have seen a lot of changes and that they're optimistic. Society is ready, the religious group really lost credibility with the youngsters and we are ready and I think that the new prince felt that and he is moving the nation, at least, forward progressively when it comes to social issues.

SEAN RUBINSZTEIN-DUNLOP: The reasons are also financial.

ANTHONY BUBALO: The current king and his son are trying to undertake a fairly thorough going economic transformation of the kingdom and one element in that is to try and increase female workplace participation and the ban on driving was a significant obstacle to that.

SEAN RUBINSZTEIN-DUNLOP: Anthony Bubalo is the research director at Australia's Lowy Institute for International Policy, and was a senior diplomat to Saudi Arabia in the '90s.

Saudi Arabia lifts ban on women driving

ANTHONY BUBALO: The young Crown Prince has also been trying to loosen some of the conservative social restrictions in the kingdom which grate with its fairly young population.

I think the Crown Prince in particular understands that the kingdom has an image problem internationally and I think it's no coincidence that they've kind of announced this internationally, including in Washington.

And finally, and I think this has been missed so far, in the last week or so the authorities have cracked down quite hard on a number, on a range of political dissidents, both on the Islamist side and on the liberal secular side in Saudi Arabia.

And this lifting of the driving ban may, in part, be intended to try and deflect a bit of attention away from that.

SEAN RUBINSZTEIN-DUNLOP: But the struggle for rights is far from over.

Saudi women are forced to follow strict dress codes, forbidden from associating with most men, and under the so-called guardianship system, women need to get a man's permission to travel, get married, work or even get healthcare.

Activist Raneen Bukhari is optimistic that oppression will be overturned.

RANEEN BUKHARI: It's definitely a part of a bigger scheme of what's to come and removing the guardianship system will be the boost that the struggle needs and the final thing that's gonna just top us over until being equal to men in society.

ELEANOR HALL: Saudi women’s rights campaigner Raneen Bukhari speaking there to Sean Rubinsztein-Dunlop.