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Saudi Arabia Announces It Will Lift Ban And Allow Women To Drive


Saudi Arabia announced today that it will overturn a longstanding ban and allow women to drive. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where women were not allowed behind the wheel. The move may signal that the ultraconservative kingdom wants to improve its image. NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: For years, the ban on women driving was held up as a sign of repression in Saudi Arabia. Every so often, a brave female tests the government's tolerance and takes to the road only to be arrested. The ban holds women back from jobs, leaves them dependent on male relatives or drivers. Now that's set to change.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Arabic).

NORTHAM: This television anchor broke the news, saying, this is a day women in Saudi Arabia have been waiting for a really long time, King Salman's royal decree that any woman who wants one could get a driver's license. But it won't take effect until June 2018. In a separate statement, the government said many senior religious leaders found no, quote, "impediment" in letting women drive. Heather Nauert, State Department spokeswoman, says the U.S. applauds the move.


HEATHER NAUERT: I think we're just happy today with the steps that they are taking. And I think that that is a very positive sign.

NORTHAM: Getting a license doesn't mean equal rights for all. Saudi Arabia remains a male-dominated society. The Saudi ambassador to the U.S., Khaled bin Salman, says women will not need to get permission from a legal guardian to get a license nor need one in the car when they drive.

Lifting the driving ban is part of a broader reform underway in Saudi Arabia led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He's trying to overhaul the economy and modernize the country. But he's also jailed opponents and started a protracted bloody war with Yemen. Still, lifting the driving ban on women could help the country's international reputation. Jackie Northam, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF IAMNOBODI'S "MAKE ME FEEL LIKE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.