MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
In Saudi Arabia, women are celebrating the king's decision allowing women to drive.
MADEHA AL AJROUSH: As a woman, I really feel that my self-dignity and respect is returned.
KELLY: That's Madeha al Ajroush, who we reached by Skype. She has been defying the ban, sometimes alongside groups of protesting women, for decades.
AJROUSH: Driving in 1990 was really not about me. It was about the quest for all women to have the freedom of mobility.
KELLY: Well, as of next summer, she'll be able to drive without reprisal. Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR. She has reported on efforts to lift this ban in Saudi Arabia, and she joins us now. Hey there, Deb.
DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Good morning.
KELLY: This seems like a really big deal. Do we know why it has happened now?
AMOS: You know, the young and powerful crown prince, also the son of the king, he's been signaling that this was going to happen for a while. This is part of larger social reforms. You know, recently for the first time, women were allowed into a sports stadium for Saudi Arabia's National Day where there was music and celebrations. There was a comic book convention in the capital. Still outlawed - movie theaters and Valentine's Day, but, you know, activists were really enthusiastic on Twitter when this announcement came down. People have gone to jail to protest this ban.
KELLY: And am I remembering right that you covered some of the - some of the first protests against this driving ban back in the early '90s?
AMOS: 1990 I was in Saudi Arabia. I was covering the first Gulf War. The country was filled with, you know, U.S. military, some of them female. Forty women got in their cars, dismissed their drivers, and for the first time, rode on the capital streets. I couldn't meet those women for another 25 years. They all lost their jobs. They couldn't travel outside of the country. There wasn't another protest till 2011. The woman who organized that one also went to jail. So, you, know it's been tough on these women, but I did, last year, drive on the streets of Saudi Arabia with one of those activists.
KELLY: Wow. So here we are in 2017, 27 years after that protest. How does this fit into - you mentioned the reform efforts underway, efforts to modernize Saudi Arabia. Is this part of that push?
AMOS: It is. It's something called, you know, the 2030 program. Look, oil prices are dropping. Saudi Arabia has to change its economy, and women are part of this change. They are more than half of the college graduates in the country, more than half of those who get higher degrees. The government is trying to move them into the workforce, and you can't do that if they can't get there. Now, it is true that Uber has kind of been a game changer. You know, you can call up a car on your phone. It doesn't really matter. So this, in some ways, is symbolic, but, look, there are 800,000 men from outside the country who are driving women and families in Saudi Arabia. The country wants those kinds of jobs to go to Saudis. And so this driving ban is in the way. So it is part of a larger economic reform and social reform.
KELLY: And real quickly, I mean, might this be the first step toward ending some of the other systems in place, like the male guardianship system still in place in Saudi Arabia?
AMOS: That's so much bigger than driving for Saudi women that your father or your brother has to give you permission to leave the country. So I think that is where the focus will go now.
KELLY: That's NPR's Deb Amos. Thanks so much.
AMOS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.