World celebrates as Saudi Arabia finally agrees to let women drive

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For years, Saudi Arabia has been the only country in the world to ban women from driving: men were the only gender to be allowed licenses, and women who drove in public risked being arrested and fined.

Now, much to the joy of activists all over the world, King Salman has issued a landmark decree which will allow women to drive in the Gulf kingdom for the very first time.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs tweeted the news twice, complete with hashtag #SaudiwomenCanDrive.

According to state media, a committee has been formed to implement the ruling and it will present recommendations within 30 days.

The government will then have until 24 June 2018 to put it into effect.

Prince Khaled bin Salman, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the US, called it “a historic big day in our kingdom”.

And, speaking at a small news conference at the Saudi embassy in Washington, he also confirmed that women will be able to obtain driver’s licenses without having to ask permission from their husbands, fathers or any male guardian – despite so-called “guardianship” laws that give men power over their female relatives.

“I think our society is ready,” he added. “This is the right time to do the right thing.”

His words will certainly ring true for the civil rights groups and Saudi activists who have been fighting for the ban to be overturned – not to mention those women who have been arrested and jailed for defying the law and taking the wheel.

Manal al-Sharif, one of the women behind the Women2Drive campaign, famously posted a video on YouTube of herself wearing a black headscarf and sunglasses while driving a car.

The clip racked up 700,000 views in a single day – but, as a result, she soon found herself imprisoned for the offence of “driving while female”.

Al-Sharif celebrated the victory by posting a photo on Twitter of herself behind the wheel of a car.

“You want a statement?” she tweeted.

“Here’s one: ‘Saudi Arabia will never be the same again. The rain begins with a single drop.’”

Loujain Hathlou – who was arrested in 2014 after trying to cross the border from the United Arab Emirates into Saudi Arabia – tweeted a simple reaction to the news: “Praise be to god.”

And, elsewhere, the hashtags ‘I am my own guardian’ and ‘Saudi Women Can Drive’ quickly began trending on social media.

As well as the lift on the driving ban, the country may be moving toward loosening some of its rules as part of its Vision 2030 programme, which aims to increase women’s participation in the workforce from 22% to 30%.

And, earlier this year, the kingdom appointed a woman as the CEO of a major commercial bank for the first time in its history.

However, while it’s certainly a step in the right direction, Saudi Arabia still has a long way to go when it comes to empowering women.

Saudi Arabia – which employs a state policy of gender segregation between unrelated men and women – regularly scores near the bottom on global gender equality rankings.

The World Economic Forum's 2016 Global Gender Gap report put it at 141 out of 145 countries – which is due, in part, to the fact that women must have the permission of a male guardian to work, study, travel or marry.