Riyadh: Saudi Arabia is to lift the ban on women drivers in an attempt to stem a rising suffragette-style movement in the kingdom.
Government officials have confirmed the landmark decision and plan to issue a decree by the end of the year.
The move is designed to forestall protests for greater freedom by women, which have recently included campaigners driving cars through the kingdom in defiance of a threat of detention and loss of livelihoods.
The royal family has previously baulked at granting women driving permits, claiming the step did not have full public support. The driving ban dates back to the establishment of the state in 1932, although recently the government line has weakened.
"There has been a decision to move on this by the Royal Court because it is recognised that if girls have been in schools since the 1960s, they have a capability to function behind the wheel when they grow up," a government official said. "We will make an announcement soon."
Abdul Aziz Bin Salamah, the deputy information minister, said the official reform programme had been dogged by debate over the issue.
"In terms of women driving, we don't have it now because of the reticence of some segments of society," he said.
"For example, my mother wouldn't want my sister to drive. It's something she cannot grapple with. But there is change on the way. I think the fair view is that one can be against it but one does not have the right to prevent it."
If the ban on women driving is lifted, it could be years before the full impact is seen. Practical hurdles stopping women obtaining licences and insurance must be overcome.
Mohammad Al Zulfa, a reformist member of the Saudi consultative Shura Council, which scrutinises official policies in the oil-rich state, said reversing the ban was part of King Abdullah's 'clever' strategy of incremental reform.
"When it was first raised, the extremists were really mad," he said. "Now they just complain. It is diminishing into a form of consent." Saudi Arabia maintains a strict segregation of the sexes outside the family home. An unaccompanied woman must shop behind curtains and cannot hail a taxi.
Critics believe allowing women to drive would be the first step towards a gradual erosion of the kingdom's modesty laws. A woman would have to remove the traditional abaya robe to get a clear view behind the wheel.
"Allowing women to drive will only bring sin," a letter to Al Watan newspaper declared last year. "The evils it would bring - mixing between the genders, temptations and tarnishing the reputation of devout Muslim women - outweigh the benefits."
Saudi women have mounted growing protests. Fawzia Al Ayouni, the country's most prominent women's rights campaigner, has risked arrest by leading convoys of women drivers. "We have broken the barrier of fear," she said.
"We want the authorities to know that we're here, that we want to drive, and that many people feel the way we do."
Winds of change: On their own in hotels
Saudi authorities, breaking with religious codes that require women to be accompanied by a male guardian, have decided to allow women to stay in hotels on their own, a newspaper reported yesterday.
A royal decree allowed the Ministry of Commerce and Industry to lay down new regulations simply requiring women to show personal identification including a photograph, which hotel managers must register with local police, Al Watan said.
The paper said the rules, set out in last month's decree, were worked out in coordination with the Ministry of the Interior and the religious police organisation, two bodies who rights activists say stand in the way of improved women's rights in Saudi Arabia.