Women in Saudi Arabia Granted the Right to Drive: A Step Away from Male Guardianship Laws?

By: Inessa Wurscher

Saudi Arabia has been well known internationally for being the only country in the world where women are forbidden from driving.[1] The reasons for this law are closely tied with the country’s tradition of male guardianship laws and have long been viewed as “a global symbol of the oppression of women.”[2] However, a recent announcement by King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud giving women the right to drive may be a sign that Saudi Arabia is ready to begin to phase out their male guardianship laws and meet their international obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).

Women have never been permitted to drive in Saudi Arabia, however before 1990 there was no official law banning the practice, instead it was unacceptable as a matter of customary practice.[3] The official royal decree that forms the basis of the law prohibiting women from diving was issued in 1990 in response to a protest where “47 women drove in a convoy” after seeing women driving on a U.S. military base.[4] The chairman of the Council of Senior Religious Scholars then issued a fatwa, a juristic ruling, which stated, “’[w]omen driving leads to many evils and negative consequences… [including] mixing with men without her being on her guard… Sharia prohibits all things that lead to vice. Women’s driving is one of the things that leads to that. This is well-known.’”[5] This fatwa formed the basis of the royal decree that has legally prohibited female drivers since 1990.[6]

The reasons given for prohibiting women from driving have varied over the years, and include beliefs such as: it is “inappropriate in Saudi culture for women to drive,”[7] “male drivers would not know how to handle having women in cars next to them,”[8] “allowing women to drive would lead to promiscuity and the collapse of the Saudi family,”[9] or “driving harm[s] women’s ovaries.”[10] The country’s guardianship laws have also played a large part in perpetuating the prohibition.[11] Under the guardianship system, “[e]very Saudi woman must have a male guardian, normally a father or husband, but in some cases a brother or even a son, who has the power to make a range of critical decisions on her behalf.”[12] When women are caught driving, the police often make women’s “male guardians sign pledges that they would not allow the women to drive again.”[13]

Despite these conservative gender values, Saudi Arabia signed the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 2000.[14] Under the convention, Saudi Arabia is “legally obligated to end discrimination against women without delay, including by abolishing the male guardianship system.”[15] The treaty specifically requires its signatories “to pursue by all appropriate means and without delay a policy of eliminating discrimination against women.”[16] The United Nations Committee on Discrimination Against Women has been urging Saudi Arabia to give more equal rights to women and end the male guardianship system since 2008.[17] In 2009 and 2013, Saudi Arabia promised to take steps to end all discrimination against women in its country.[18]

However, it is only during the last two years that Saudi Arabia has made any significant legal changes that have begun to limit discrimination against women. In 2015, Saudi women were granted the right to vote and rule for municipal elections for the first time.[19] However, women who wanted to participate still had to receive permission from their male guardian.[20]

Since then the guardianship laws have been loosened, allowing women to enroll universities, receive medical care, get a job, rent homes and apartments, manage their finances, and bring a legal claim in court without a male guardian.[21] Unfortunately, despite these legal advances, many women from conservative families are culturally prohibited from engaging in any activities, even leaving the house, without her guardian’s permission.[22] However, despite these challenges it is clear that the status of women in Saudi Arabia is changing rapidly, as can be seen by the newest and most awaited change in the Saudi Arabian law: allowing women to drive.

On September 26, 2017, King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud issued a decree that gives women the right to drive in Saudi Arabia starting in June 2018.[23] The decree states:

We adopt the application of the provisions of the Traffic Law and its Executive Regulations—including the issuance of driving licenses—to both males and females, and to form a high-level committee of ministries of (internal affairs, finance, labor and social development) to study the necessary arrangements for enforcement; the implementation shall be—God willing— . . . , in accordance with the approved Sharia and regulations and completion of what is required by it.[24]

According to the King, the main motivation behind this decree is to encourage greater economic growth by making it easier for women to participate in the workforce.[25] Since “[m]any working Saudi women spend much of their salaries on drivers or must be driven to work by male relatives,” the prohibition on women driving has previously discouraged women from working.[26] This objective is in line with the King’s “Vision for 2030” project where he states one of his goals to “moderni[z]e Saudi society and bring it more into line with the rest of the world.”[27] In the plan, he “declares that the government will ‘continue to develop [women’s] talents, invest in their productive capabilities and enable them to strengthen their future and contribute to the development of our society and economy.’”[28]

Not all of the Saudi people, however, are supportive of this plan. While many people in Saudi Arabia have been involved in campaigns over the years to change the law, such as the “women2drive” movement in 2011, and are excited about the change,[29] there is still strong opposition, particularly from conservative clerics.[30] Some of these conservative groups use the guardianship laws to their advantage to prevent the practical application of the new laws while also campaigning against them. In fact shortly after the new driving law was announced, some of these groups called for the “’virtuous ones’ to work against its implementation, to protect against epidemics, adultery and other disasters.”[31] Although these conservative attitudes persist, the King’s new plan and legal reforms along with citizen campaigns may have the potential to change Saudi Arabia’s direction and approach towards women’s rights.

However, women still need permission from a male relative to travel, study abroad, get a passport, get married, and be released from prison.[32] Even when Saudi women are granted more equal legal rights, they may still need permission from a male guardian to exercise that right.[33] This caveat creates a level of legal inequality, but does not serve to eliminate discrimination in practice. As long as this discrimination exists, even implicitly, Saudi Arabia will not be able to meet the standards set under CEDAW. So far, Saudi Arabia’s noncompliance has not resulted in serious consequences, however it is unclear whether that will remain true going forward. At this time it remains to be seen whether or not women will need a male guardian’s permission to drive after the decree takes effect in June 2018. Since the “decree gives the committee the right to create guidelines within Sharia,” “women may still need permission from their male family members to drive.”[34]

Although granting Saudi women these rights, including most recently the right to drive, is a step in the right direction, male guardianship laws still breed discrimination against women. As long as every right granted to women in Saudi Arabia comes with the caveat that they must have the permission of their male guardian, Saudi Arabia cannot be in compliance with its international obligations under CEDAW. Now that legal reforms have begun to give Saudi women more rights in their daily lives, it is possible that it may be time for Saudi Arabia to explore more substantive legal changes to their guardianship laws that would truly put them on a path toward equal rights for men and women alike.



[1] Miracle Jones, Saudi Arabia to Allow Women to Drive, Jurist, Sept. 26, 2017, http://www.jurist.org/paperchase/2017/09/saudi-arabia-to-allow-women-to-drive.php.

[2] Ben Hubbard, Saudi Arabia Agrees to Let Women Drive, The N.Y. Times, Sept. 26, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/26/world/middleeast/saudi-arabia-women-drive.html.

[3] Human Rights Watch, Boxed In: Women and Saudi Arabia’s Male Guardianship System, Jul. 16, 2016, https://www.hrw.org/report/2016/07/16/boxed/women-and-saudi-arabias-male-guardianship-system (hereinafter Boxed In).

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Hubbard, supra note 2.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Jones, supra note 1.

[12] Boxed In, supra note 3.

[13] Id.

[14] Boxed In, supra note 3.

[15] Id.

[16] Id; see generally Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, Dec. 18, 1979, 1249 U.N.T.S. 13.

[17] Boxed In, supra note 3.

[18] Id.

[19] Brian Murphy, Women in Saudi Arabia Vote for the First Time, The Washington Post, Dec. 12, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/saudi-women-vote-for-the-first-time/2015/12/12/9ad0b898-9ad0-11e5-aca6-1ae3be6f06d2_story.html?utm_term=.e8f3fd5a7408.

[20] Mona El-Naggar & Adam Bolt, ‘Ladies First:’ Saudi Arabia’s Female Candidates, N.Y. Times (Dec. 2015), https://www.nytimes.com/video/world/middleeast/100000004711633/ladies-first-saudi-arabias-female-candidates.html?action=click&gtype=vhs&version=vhs-heading&module=vhs&region=title-area.

[21] Henna Bagga, I Am My Own Guardian, Or Am I?, Jurist, Jun. 28, 2017, http://www.jurist.org/dateline/2017/06/Ohud-Alzahran-wali-system-abolition.php.

[22] El-Nagger & Bolt, supra note 20.

[23] Jones, supra note 1.

[24] Royal Order to Adopt Provisions of Traffic Law, Executive Regulations, including Issuance of Driving Licenses for Males, Females, alike, Saudi Press Agency, Sept. 26, 2017, http://www.spa.gov.sa/viewfullstory.php?lang=en&newsid=1671331#1671331.

[25] Hubbard, supra note 2.

[26] Id.

[27] Frank Gardner, Analysis: A Massive Change for Saudi Society, BBC News, Sept. 27, 2017, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-41408195.

[28] Boxed In, supra note 3.

[29] Hubbard, supra note 2; Human Rights Watch, Saudi Arabia: End Driving Ban for Women – On October 26, Women are set to Defy Prohibition and Drive, Oct. 24, 2013, https://www.hrw.org/news/2013/10/24/saudi-arabia-end-driving-ban-women.

[30] Hubbard, supra note 2.

[31] Id.

[32] Bagga, supra note 21.

[33] El-Naggar & Bolt, supra note 20.

[34] Jones, supra note 1.