Saudi Arabia announced Tuesday that it will allow women to drive for the first time in the ultra-conservative kingdom, ending a policy criticized worldwide as a human rights violation.
Saudi Arabia, the only country in the world to bar females from driving, has received negative attention for years for detaining women who defied its ban.
In a royal decree signed by King Salman bin Abdulaziz, the order said it will be effective immediately but the rollout will take months, according to the Saudi Press Agency. The decree said that women would be allowed to drive "in accordance with the Islamic laws."
Activists are celebrating the news as a major development in a country where women face extreme social and personal restrictions as a result of the kingdom’s strict interpretation of Islam. Women are not allowed to travel without the permission of a male guardian. They also must cover their hair and bodies in public under the law.
The United States welcomed Saudi Arabia’s announcement Tuesday, with State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert saying the U.S. is “happy” with the move, according to the Associated Press. Nauert would not comment on other restrictions Saudi women face in the kingdom.
The progressive developments follow a decade of incremental change in Saudi Arabia with more women working in retail and being appointed top executive roles at the Saudi stock exchange and Dammam Airport. Women can now also be appointed to the Shoura Council and run in municipal elections.
Women in Saudi Arabia who have defied the accepted norm of their gender not driving have met extreme outcomes.
Manal al-Sharif was arrested for breaking the law in 2011 when she filmed herself cruising behind the wheel of a car and uploaded the video to YouTube. Eventually she was released from jail after international outcry. She said the arrest only made her more determined to speak out for Saudi women's rights. Her passion led her to write a memoir, Daring to Drive: a Saudi Woman's Awakening.
"My society is very conservative. Women are treated as minors who need protection and permission of men for almost everything," al-Sharif said in an interview in July with USA TODAY.
Al-Sharif explained that when 47 women tried to break an accepted norm by driving on Nov. 6, 1990, the religious establishment balked.
"They were denounced as immoral women out to destroy Saudi society," al-Sharif said. "Two days after the protest, the Saudi grand mufti issued a decree that driving by women was un-Islamic. The official argument: Women who drive will become immoral."
Contributing: Waseem Abbasi