Saudi Arabia's royal-appointed advisory council recommended to the government for the first time that the kingdom's blanket ban on women driving be lifted, but with conditions: Only women over 30 will be allowed behind the wheel and only until 8 pm each day, and no makeup allowed while driving, a council member said Friday.
The Shura Council's recommendations are not obligatory on the government. But simply making the recommendation was a startling shift after years of the kingdom staunchly rejecting any review of the ban.
There have been small but increasingly bold protests by women who took to their cars over the past year. The driving ban, which is unique in the world, is imposed because the kingdom's ultraconservative Muslim clerics say "licentiousness" will spread if women drive.
The council member told The Associated Press that the Shura Council made the recommendations in a secret, closed session held in the past month. The member spoke on condition of anonymity because the recommendations had not been made public.
Under the recommendations, only women over 30 would be allowed to drive and they would need permission from a male guardian to do so. They would be allowed to drive from 7 am to 8 pm on Saturday through Wednesday and noon to 8 pm on Thursday and Friday, the weekend in the kingdom.
The conditions also require that a woman driver wear conservative dress and no make-up, the official said. Within cities, they can drive without a male guardian in the car, but outside of cities, a male is required to be present.
The council said a "female traffic department" will have to be created so that a woman officer would deal with female drivers if their cars broke down or faced assaults, the council member said. It recommended the female traffic officers be under the supervision of the "religious agencies."
The 150-member Shura Council is appointed by the king, drawing on various sectors of society to act as the closest thing to a parliament in the kingdom, though it has no legislative powers. King Abdullah appointed women to it for the first time, and now there are 30 women members.
The driving ban has long forced families to hire live-in drivers for women. Women who can't afford the $300 to $400 a month for a driver must rely on male relatives to drive them to work, school, shopping or the doctor.
The ban is part of the general restrictions imposed on women based on strict interpretation of Islamic Shariah law. Genders are strictly segregated, and women are required to wear a headscarf and loose, black robes in public. Guardianship laws require women to get permission from a male relative – usually husband or father, but lacking those, a brother or son – to travel, get married, enroll in higher education or undergo certain surgical procedures.