The winds of change are blowing in Saudi Arabia. The most visible sign came this summer, when females in the desert kingdom were finally allowed to drive. Now women are at the center of a tug-of-war between the strict Islamic majority and people pushing for more freedoms.
“I’m so excited it’s actually happening,” says Hessah al-Ajaji about driving her family’s Lexus in the capital city of Riyadh.
Until this summer, the no-women-drivers law kept all women in backseats—and harmed the country’s reputation as well as its economy.
All humans—men and women—are given by God the right to flourish within His intended boundaries. No one has the right to hinder another person’s freedom or progress. In fact, God specifically commands men to honor women with equality because each is a “fellow heir of the grace of life.” (1 Peter 3:7, NASB)
Unlike previous Saudi monarchs, King Salman allows his son and heir to make changes in the country. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has allowed concerts and movie theaters to open. He has eased restraints on gender segregation and limited the powers of the religious police. (Read about the changes in WORLDteen: “Saudi Culture Shocks” at https://teen.wng.org/node/2145 and “Saudi Arabia Welcomes Back the Cinema” at https://teen.wng.org/node/4607.)
Compared to the way things were, the prince’s changes are drastic. Just a few years ago, Islamic police banned music of any kind in public. They seized groups of unmarried men and women simply for sitting together. They waved sticks at women with uncovered hair or faces.
Bin Salman is likely also behind the king’s decision to lift the ban on women drivers. But arriving at the change was difficult. Not everyone is happy about the new freedom for women. Officials insist that Saudi Arabia is modernizing, not Westernizing. The prince calls the reforms a return to “moderate Islam.”
The kingdom continues placing other obstacles in women’s path. Only four schools offer the required driving classes—so most women haven’t been able to get licenses yet. Two more schools may open soon. But women’s classes cost several hundred dollars—far more than what men pay.
Days before the okay to start driving came, police arrested several women’s rights activists. The individuals taken into custody had called for lifting the driving ban. Saudi media branded them traitors. The arrests highlighted the ongoing shakiness of women’s status in the country.
Not everyone is against female drivers. Hessah al-Ajaji says the male drivers on the road “were really supportive and cheering and smiling.” Saudi women like al-Ajaji will persevere. They’ve waited a long time to take the wheel.