Hessah al-Ajaji drives her car on the capital’s busy Tahlia Street after midnight for the first time in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on June 24. (Nariman El-Mofty/AP)

Saudi Arabia, under the initiative of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, gave women in the kingdom the right to drive.

Saudi Arabia has been the only country in the world to ban women from driving — an internationally recognized symbol of unequal status. Along with the ability to drive has come new rights and freedoms: the ability to join the military, work in intelligence services and attend sporting events and concerts. A senior cleric even commented that women should not be required to wear the abaya.

Saudi Arabia is in good company. Across the Middle East and North Africa, countries have been upgrading women’s rights. Since 2011, nearly every country in North Africa has adopted a gender quota, in which parties are required to nominate a minimum percentage of women as candidates for office, to increase women’s representation in politics. In Egypt, Tunisia, Iraq, Yemen and Morocco, women can now pass on citizenship to their children, and Lebanon may soon join this list. The region has seen widespread repeal of laws letting rapists escape punishment if they marry their victims. And nine countries adopted laws against domestic violence.

Why are Middle Eastern countries advancing women’s rights — and why have they lagged for so long? Many observers have blamed women’s inequality on religion, specifically Islam. Our research finds that these explanations are too simplistic, as we will explain.

Religious explanations fall short.

Some observers argue that women’s inequality in Muslim-majority countries, particularly in places like Saudi Arabia, is because of Islam — implying that reform will come only if more liberal interpretations emerge or these nations secularize. Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris find that gender inequality is more prevalent in societies where Islam is the dominant faith. Muslims living in the West appear to hold more patriarchal views than non-Muslims, suggesting that inequality adheres to the religion’s teachings or values.

But if religion is a primary factor, then individuals and statesmen should conform to Islam’s tenets — even where Islamic texts call for equality between the sexes.

In a recent Comparative Politics paper, we find that when Islam dictates support for women’s rights — such as the right to own and manage property — Muslim-majority nations may be reluctant to extend or enforce these rights. We examined three aspects of women’s property rights — the right to own and manage property, to inherit, and to own land — using data from the OECD Social Institutions and Gender Index, which examines these rights in both law and practice.

Dominant Sunni and Shiite jurisprudence agree that women have equal rights to acquire and manage property — but that they should inherit half as much as men. Islamic law’s distinction among property rights allows us to examine whether it is religion or the presence of other patriarchal institutions, as other scholars contend, that limits women’s rights. We find that countries tend to discriminate against women by applying religious norms in inheritance rights — but for property rights where Islam enjoins equality, the practice is more mixed. This inconsistency suggests that religion-based explanations fall short.

The rights to education and employment plus women’s activism make a big difference in women’s rights.

So if religion isn’t the limitation, what can change women’s status? In “Myths About Women’s Rights: How, Where and Why Rights Advance,” one of us, Feryal Cherif, examines two theories for why cultures advance gender equality.

The first is what we call “core rights”: that women’s rights to education and employment are the building blocks with which to begin political organizing for equality, developing a group sense of fairness (or the lack thereof), and building public support for women’s equal socioeconomic standing. This gives politicians, pundits and other domestic elites reasons to support women’s rights.

The second theory is that women’s rights advocacy fosters change as domestic and international activists promote new norms of equality by publicizing nations’ practices — both those that treat women equally and those that lag — and pressuring governments to conform to global standards.

Our research shows that these theories are consistent with the recent advances in gender equality in Saudi Arabia and the region at large. Examining women’s property rights in 41 Muslim-majority countries, we find that women are likely to enjoy more secure property rights in countries where, first, women have greater access to education and second, where there are dense networks of women’s-rights activists. Where women are more aware of their rights, better positioned to challenge male kin, and have the socioeconomic power to hold politicians accountable, their property rights are stronger.

That’s true as well for the Saudi Arabian expansion of women’s rights, including the right to drive. It is probably not a coincidence that, over the decades, the gap between Saudi Arabian boys’ and girls’ education has substantially narrowed.

And it’s true in many other Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) countries, where girls outperform boys in school and enroll in universities at higher rates than boys. Moreover, an increasing number of Arab women have joined the labor force — albeit not yet at levels as high as global averages. Even in Saudi Arabia, with its extreme and unique forms of gender segregation, women are working in more and more fields. And with the ability to drive, more women will be able to seek employment.

In addition to core rights, women’s-rights activism has also substantially increased in the Middle East and North Africa in the past few decades. Between 1980 and 2015, the number of women’s-rights groups operating in the region nearly tripled. Some scholars and reporters have argued that advocacy campaigns and global pressure have helped push MENA nations toward gender equality.

Even in conservative states like Saudi Arabia, the government may find it difficult to contain women’s expectations once they’ve been educated and entered the labor force — even while more conservative parts of their nation push back.

Benjamin G. Bishin is professor of political science at University of California, Riverside, and author of  “Tyranny of the Minority: The Subconstituency Politics Theory of Representation. 

Feryal M. Cherif is associate professor of political science at Loyola Marymount University and author of “Myths About Women’s Rights: How, Where and Why Rights Advance.”