According to this article Saudi Arabia was (and still is for a little while) the only country that did not allow women to drive:

Women in Saudi Arabia will be allowed to drive, the government announced on Tuesday - ending their reign as the only nation in the world where women were forbidden from getting behind the wheel of a car.

Limiting economic opportunities happens in many countries which include Jordan, Iran, Afghanistan and Yemen:

About 155 countries have at least one law that limits women’s economic opportunities, while 100 states put restrictions on the types of jobs women can do and 18 allow husbands to dictate whether their wives can work at all.

Question: Why is Saudi Arabia the only country that had the restriction for driving?

  • 2
    for now, is this a question about history or politics? :) maybe it would be better to ask this before law change.
    – user 1
    Oct 4, 2017 at 16:05
  • @user1 - about policy. I am interested about the unique aspect of SA's policy to not allow women to drive (although this is not formally restricted, it is actually happening, so it had to be formally/explicitly allowed). Many countries put various restrictions on women, but restriction to drive is unique and it is interesting to know where does this uniqueness come from. So, it's about why a (unwritten) law is like it still is.
    – Alexei
    Oct 5, 2017 at 4:44
  • @user1 - That was done. The question has been asked in early October 2017, but the new law isn't slated to take effect until later, "with the target to remove the ban on women's drivers licenses by June 2018" according to Wikipedia's article on Women's rights in Saudi Arabia, section on Driving which cites a BBC article that mentions June 24
    – TOOGAM
    Oct 5, 2017 at 9:33
  • @Alexei ok, i understand now what u mean.
    – user 1
    Oct 5, 2017 at 9:43
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    Because you can't tell drivers apart, of course ;-)
    – gerrit
    Oct 5, 2017 at 10:08

2 Answers 2


Internal reasoning in Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA): It's for women's benefit

Sheikh Saleh bin Saad al-Lohaidan, a judicial adviser to an association of Gulf psychologists, recently told a Saudi website that "If a woman drives a car, not out of pure necessity, that could have negative physiological impacts as functional and physiological medical studies show that it automatically affects the ovaries and pushes the pelvis upwards. That is why we find those who regularly drive have children with clinical problems of varying degrees.”
(quoted from "'Negative Physiological Impacts'? Why Saudi Women Aren't Allowed to Drive"@The Atlantic)

It also helps enforce the country's ban on women interacting with men who aren't part of their family:

Driving is a direct extension of this type of religion-based segregation. As one Saudi man explained to a Christian Science Monitor reporter, “What would happen if a woman got in a car accident? Then she would be forced to deal with the male driver of the other car, a stranger, with no oversight."

Underlying reason 1: Wahhabism and gender separation

KSA's social norms AND laws are based on Wahhabism.

Part of those tenets are:

  1. a requirement that women's place is at home, taking care of home and raising children (not a uniquely Saudi or Wahhabbi idea, it was to one or another extent present in nearly 100% of pre-20th-century societies, from ancient Greeks to 19th century German Empire's "Kinder, Küche, Kirche"). But that has more weight and severity in Wahhabi branch of Islam as well as in middle-Eastern culture (separately from religion - most discussions of Middle East fail to appreciate the tribal cultural norms as separate but intertwined things from religion).

  2. Religious based "modesty" requirement, which in Wahhabism takes the extreme form of a woman not being allowed to interact in any way shape or form with a non-close-relative male without a male guardian who is a relative.

Obviously, driving would present a challenge or a violation to both of the above norms.

Underlying reason 2: Oil

A less explored reason has to do with KSA's oil-based economy.

Michael L. Ross's work "Oil, Islam, And Women" in American Political Science Review (2008): 107--123:

he argued that there is an inverse relationship between oil and women’s social and political opportunities. The Middle East’s dire record in women’s rights and equality, he argued, was not due to the legacy of Islamic culture, but is rather attributable to oil. He concluded that the idea that “development leads to equality” was not valid in all cases, but depended on the type of development. Development that was dependent on oil and mineral revenues allowed for the preservation of patriarchal norms, laws and institutions in a society.
His study showed that similar impacts of oil on the status of women in oil-rich countries applied outside the Middle East in places like Nigeria, Russia and Chile. Ross’s research includes statistical data that show the existing relationship between oil and the impact on the work patterns of women and their opportunities for political representation.
The data show that the emergence of the Saudi oil industry directly yielded a drop in the proportion of women in the labor force and decision-making authority, an apparent characteristic of Gulf societies.
(Ross's work as explained in "Women in Saudi Arabia Status, Rights, and Limitations" candidacy dissertation from UoW)

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    The relationship between oil and women’s social and political opportunities is very interesting. It is the first time I have heard about this idea.
    – Alexei
    Oct 4, 2017 at 13:16
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    The final quote seems rather confused. The author blames gender inequality in the Middle East on oil but then says that development of oil wealth "allowed for the preservation of patriarchal norms, laws and institutions". If oil development merely preserved them, those patriarchal norms, laws and institutions must have existed before oil, which means that we can't blame them on oil. Oct 4, 2017 at 14:50
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    @user4012 Sure, but they were already bad before oil came along. It's nonsense to say that this thing that existed in the culture before oil came along is "because of oil" rather than "because of the culture in which it already existed." Oct 4, 2017 at 14:59
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    @Alexei, right on, that is extremely interesting. My own experience coming from a 3rd world country to New York in the 70s reinforced how primitive my life had been (marvelling at sidewalks, plumbing and hot water). The countries in question are living in the 16th century but because of oil and desert have no need to progress. At least my old country made it to the 1990s last year, lol(Ecuador) Oct 4, 2017 at 15:25
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    @Dai, he's pretty high up in Saudi Arabia's social structure -- he out-ranks any medical professional who might try to censure him.
    – Mark
    Oct 4, 2017 at 18:15

It's much more complex than oil or patriarchy. What we call "patriarchy" is just a form of power that privileges men and allows them more freedoms and rights than women. Rome, Greece, Japan, India, the USA, Canada and Europe all before WW2 (and the need for women to "man" industrial machines for wartime production which was a major catalyst for women to continue the push for gender parity) etc. are all versions of patriarchal societies.

Not all societies (not even close to 1% let alone 100% historically) practiced patriarchy. Not even northern European societies (which for a period of time were just as oppressively patriarchal as Saudi Arabia) prior to Roman colonization; they tended to be much more egalitarian with much less sanctions against women expanding their interests outside of the so-called "domestic sphere".

Roman men were notoriously patriarchal for a mix of pseudo-scientific, religious and political reasons. Aristotle wrote that women were inferior men, that because they did not get enough heat during gestation they were failed males. He was basing this on observations of certain lizard and serpent species which determine sex based on in vitro temperature.

Men were considered the ideal human specimen and everything about Roman culture reflected this belief.

If we compare Saudi Arabia's history of patriarchy to that of the west, it would not be very different, really, until a certain point in history. The west and SA have many of the same external characteristics: religion, hierarchy, warlike tendencies, rigid social boundaries (e.g. European class system) .

The west diverged sometime after the middle ages in a very different trajectory. The result of this trajectory is the development of the notion of human rights for everyone regardless of sex in the western context. SA hasn't had that similar kind of development. Why?

Region, industrial and scientific revolutions, the western move toward secularization and the separation of church and state, a crucial development which the US is the only nation in recorded history to have codified.

We can see well-defined historical catalysts in US (and European, excepting the eastern European states) history: Magna Carta, treaty of Versailles, Cromwell's revolution, the American revolution, abolition, suffragism, etc. All social phenoms that have NEVER happened in Saudi history.

Essentially, all of these factors (Hegel's proposition) allowed for a loosening of the hierarchical and rigid social boundaries. personal lived experiences of male soldiers in the field in WW1 being saved by women nurses/medics, the allies war machine being driven by women workers, the leveling of the social field through the various legal statements made in the USA about equality etc. the loosening of the class caste system.

Again, SA has never had that, it is essentially stuck in a primitive power mode that organizes itself around male dominance and oppressive masculinity because it has never had the lived experience of seeing women live up to their potential through social conflict. It's like the needle is stuck in a scratched groove.

I'm a man, and I do not personally understand what it is some guys get from dominating women. It's not a very fair fight to begin with (I'm 6'5", 280) so it's not really something to take pride in.....the only thing that makes sense is that in patriarchal societies sons are really important.

Lineage and male ego around producing male heirs (again Greek and Roman societies also had this and its influence is still felt in western cultures) is a super big deal. Cuckolding is an equally big deal, what man in such a context could handle

  1. being cheated on by his wife,
  2. be insecure about whether or not his son was actually his?

I imagine #2 would be crucial to men in SA society. How else can you control a woman if you can't control her heart? You have to control her body and limit her choices, so that your insecurity is quelled. Because of this, I see SA men as very weak, very insecure and immature and their own traditions perpetuate that insecurity and weakness.

Also, I think it is of interesting note that prior to Islam many Arab cultures had the common practice of sodomy on boys and adolescent males just as Greeks and Romans did. Penis in anus = ultimate form of male dominating another male.

  • 3
    While this is an impressive essay on patriarchies through history, it does not really answer the OP's question. The OP is specifically interested in driving, as opposed to any other activity. This was reiterated in comments (though the comment was after your answer).
    – Cort Ammon
    Oct 5, 2017 at 4:54
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    What is meant by "the separation of church and state, a crucial development which the US is the only nation in recorded history to have codified"? Oct 5, 2017 at 5:00
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  • 6
    This seems to be more an opinion than a fact based essay. Please add some sources. For example look at this sentence: "The west diverged sometime after the middle ages in a very different trajectory". There are an abundance of things to say: That "the west" is a modern concept which simply does not make sense at the end of the middle age, that there was no congruent divergence in western countries (compare Russia, Great Britain and Japan), that women's liberation happened 400 years after the start of the Renaissance and 150 years after secularization and enlightenment, and so on.
    – Thern
    Oct 5, 2017 at 7:46
  • This clearly doesn't answer the question, it's just your opinion. Do you have any sources to your claims? Oct 5, 2017 at 17:27

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