Saudi Arabia to allow women to drive for first time

Last Updated Sep 27, 2017 12:20 AM EDT

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- Women will be allowed to drive for the first time next summer in Saudi Arabia, the ultra-conservative kingdom announced Tuesday, marking a significant expansion of women's rights in the only the country that barred them from getting behind the wheel.

The country's Shura council was considering the issue, but King Salman made the final call, CBS News White House and senior foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Brennan reports.

While women in other Muslim countries drove freely, the kingdom's blanket ban attracted negative publicity for years. Neither Islamic law nor Saudi traffic law explicitly prohibited women from driving, but they were not issued licenses and were detained if they attempted to drive.

"Women are half our population. They are a capable half of our population. Without them we cannot move forward," Prince Khaled bin Salman, the new Saudi ambassador to the U.S., told reporters Tuesday. He declared there is "no wrong time to do the right thing."

"Women are allowed to drive however they decide to," Khalid said, explaining that women do not need to get permission from males to drive and they do not need guardianship with them to drive.

"The pace of change has changed," Khalid said of his country, noting its youth and vibrancy. "I think our leadership understands our society is ready."

The decree indicated that women will not be allowed to drive immediately. A committee will be formed to look into how to implement the new order, which is slated to take effect in June 2018.

For years, the kingdom has incrementally granted women more rights and visibility, including participation in the Olympic Games in London and Rio, positions on the country's top consultative council and the right to run and vote in local elections in 2015.

Despite these openings, Saudi women remain largely subject to the whims of men due to guardianship laws, which bar them from obtaining a passport, traveling abroad or marrying without the consent of a male relative. Women who attempt to flee abusive families have also faced imprisonment or been forced into shelters.

King Salman and his young son and heir, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, tested the waters over the weekend by allowing women into the country's main stadium in Riyadh for annual celebrations of the nation's founding. The stadium had previously been reserved for all-male crowds to watch sporting events.

Women and men also flooded a main street in the capital, bopping their heads to pop music as green lights flickered overhead in the color of the flag. The scene was shocking for a city in which gender segregation is strictly enforced and where women are seldom seen walking the streets, much less mixing in close quarters with males.

The official announcement came in the form of a royal decree that was reported late Tuesday by the state-run Saudi Press Agency and state TV.

"I am really excited. This is a good step forward for women's rights," said Aziza Youssef, a professor at King Saud University and one of Saudi Arabia's most vocal women's rights activists. Speaking to The Associated Press from Riyadh, she said women were "happy" but also that the change was "the first step in a lot of rights we are waiting for."

Saudi history offers many examples of women being punished simply for operating a vehicle.

In 1990, 50 women were arrested for driving and lost their passports and their jobs. More than 20 years later, a woman was sentenced in 2011 to 10 lashes for driving, though the late King Abdullah overturned the sentence.

As recently as late 2014, two Saudi women were detained for more than two months for defying the ban on driving when one of them attempted to cross the Saudi border with a license from neighboring United Arab Emirates in an act of defiance.

Youssef took part in numerous driving campaigns, including a widely publicized effort in 2013 when dozens of women across the kingdom uploaded videos to YouTube of themselves driving in Saudi Arabia. Some videos showed families and male drivers giving women a "thumbs-ups," suggesting many were ready for the change.

Activist Manal al-Sharif was arrested by Saudi Arabia's religious police for driving in 2011. She lost her job and received abuse and threats.

"You always have to be prepared when you speak up against the odds or the status quo to pay a price," she told CBS News' Holly Williams in 2013. "Profanity, lies, rumors. You could lose your job. You could lose everything."

On Tuesday, al-Sharif celebrated King Salman's decision on Twitter: "Saudi Arabia will never be the same again. The rain begins with a single drop." 

However, many of those same ultraconservative clerics, who wield power and influence in the judiciary and education sectors, have also spoken out in the past against women driving, playing sports or entering the workforce. They argue such acts corrupt society and lead to sin.

One Saudi cleric even stated in 2013 that driving could affect a woman's ovaries and hurt her fertility. That same year, around 150 clerics and religious scholars held a rare protest outside the Saudi king's palace against efforts by women seeking the right to drive.

Women in Saudi Arabia have long had to rely on male relatives to get to work or run errands, complicating government efforts to boost household incomes as lower oil prices force austerity measures. The more affluent have male drivers. In major cities, women can access ride-hailing apps such as Uber and Careem.

To celebrate Tuesday's decree, several Saudi women posted images on social media deleting their ride sharing apps.

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert called the move "a great step in the right direction." She did not comment on whether Saudi Arabia still needs to do more to ensure full rights for its female citizens.

Lori Boghardt, a Gulf specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the change is yet another sign that the crown prince is intent on adopting social reforms that will transform the kingdom.

"Today it's especially clear that this includes moves that've long been thought of by Saudis as politically risky," she said.