Before last month, Saudi Arabia was the last country on Earth barring its female citizens from the right to drive an automobile. Now, a change has come after a royal decree from Saudi King Salman, which will go into effect next June: The country’s women may take the wheel.
While the rule change is a drastic one in Saudi Arabia, its impact may be slow—women in the Middle Eastern country still depend on men to drive for now, and for many, this means getting rides from male family members or driving services.
“The family has always operated on the basis of dependency, so that’s a big core restructuring of the family unit,” said activist Madeha Alajroush, a woman who took part in Saudi Arabia’s first campaign to push for their right to drive in 1990. As a result, 47 women—including Alajroush—were arrested. The protesters faced stigmatization, lost their jobs, and were barred from traveling abroad for one year.
After a long-fought battle to attain driving rights, the issue has come full circle.
“I had no idea it was going to take like 27 years, but anyway, we need to celebrate,”said Alajroush.
However, carmakers may have to hold their celebrations for now, as the new rule may not equate to increased spending on vehicles in Saudi Arabia just yet, analysts said. Some families will share currently owned vehicles with female family members, while other women lack the resources to buy a car on their own.
“Families with the means likely already have enough vehicles because women are already being transported in them,” said Rebecca Lindland, an analyst for Cox Automotive in the U.S. who has studied the Saudi Arabian market. She added, “The idea that 15 million women are going to go out and buy a car is not realistic.”
Despite these delays, carmakers leapt on the opportunity for new advertisement campaigns directed toward Saudi women. Ford and Volkswagen quickly put together congratulatory posts on Twitter with clever photos to celebrate the situation.
“The car for the Saudi women have [sic] become the symbol of wanting our voices to be heard.” said Alajroush, adding, “Men used to leave work to pick up the kids. The whole country was paralyzed. It’s a restructuring of how we think, how we operate, how we move.”