Women in one Gulf country are beginning to have more autonomy over their travel. Months of preparations and anticipation culminated on Monday, when Saudi Arabia issued a driver's license to a woman for the first time. Photos of Saudi women getting their licenses show that society is changing in the Gulf nation, albeit slowly; women will legally be able to drive in the country beginning on June 24.
"All the requirements for women in the kingdom to start driving have been established," Director General of the General Department of Traffic Mohammed al-Bassami said in May, according to the pan-Arab news outlet Al Arabiya.
A video of government officials handing over a driver's license to the first woman ever to receive one in Saudi Arabia was shared on social media. Two separate application processes will be put in place, Al Arabiya reported: one for women with international driver's licenses, and one for women who don't already hold a license. Driving schools have reportedly been established through the country.
Expanded eligibility requirements for driver's licenses haven't given all Saudi women a free pass, however. CBS reports that four women who have previously campaigned for women's driving rights in the country currently remain under arrest, awaiting a potential trial. According to CNN, those women remain under arrest even as the government announced over the weekend that it was "temporarily releasing" a separate group of detainees, many who are driving-rights activists.
Those who remain in custody allegedly confessed to breaking various laws, multiple media outlets report. They are being held "after sufficient evidence was made available and for their confessions of charges attributed to them," according to a government statement obtained by Al Jazeera.
Ten women received licenses on Monday, with 2,000 more expected to be issued next week, Al Jazeera reports. A royal decree issued in September 2017 announced that the women's driving ban would be lifted this month. Saudi Arabia was the only country in the world to unilaterally bar women from getting driver's licenses at the time of that announcement.
That women will be allowed to drive in the kingdom marks a major policy shift in a country where women's independence is stifled by an archaic guardianship program. A woman's guardian is typically her father, husband, brother, or even her son. Under the program, women must gain permission in order to travel abroad, get a passport, marry, or leave prison. In some cases, guardians must provide permission for women to work or access health care services.
Human Rights Watch reports that the government has twice offered to end the system, but has thus far failed to do so. The nonprofit describes the system as "discriminatory."
Recently, Saudi Arabia has been taking small steps toward women's equality. Pegged as part of King Salman's 2030 Plan, which intends to reduce Saudi Arabia's dependence on oil and diversify the economy, the government announced in February that it would begin allowing Saudi women to join the country's military.
Earlier this year, women were allowed to apply for military non-combat security positions, so long as they met 12 requirements. Included in those stipulations were requirements that women applicants be between the ages of 25 and 35, and that they be at least 5 feet tall. But while the shift was characterized as an expansion of women's rights in Saudi Arabia, the application requirements also requested that women apply for positions located within the same region that their guardians live in.
As ever, progress is a slow and steady course. According to Saudi Arabian diplomats, women will not need to seek permission from their guardians to apply for driver's licenses.