Saudi women gear up for new freedom as driving ban ends

Women across Saudi Arabia took to the roads in the early hours of Sunday (June 24), ushering in the end of the world's last ban on female drivers.

RIYADH • Women will hit the roads in Saudi Arabia today with the lifting of the world's last ban on female drivers, long seen as an emblem of women's repression in the conservative kingdom.

The move, ordered last September by King Salman, is part of sweeping reforms pushed by his powerful young son Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who aims to transform the economy of the world's top oil exporter and open up its cloistered society.

"We are ready, and it will totally change our lives," said Ms Samira al-Ghamdi, a 47-year-old psychologist from Jeddah, one of the first Saudi women to be issued with a driving licence.

The lifting of the ban, which for years drew international condemnation and comparisons to the Taleban's rule in Afghanistan, has been welcomed by Western allies as proof of a new progressive trend in Saudi Arabia.

But it has been accompanied by a harsh crackdown on dissent, including against some of the very activists who previously campaigned against the ban.

They will sit in jail as their peers take to the road legally for the first time.

Saudi women with foreign licences began converting them only earlier this month, so the number of new female drivers is expected to remain low at first. It will be some time before others learning to drive at new state-run schools are road ready.

And some women still face resistance from conservative relatives. Many accustomed to using a private driver say they are reluctant to take on the Muslim kingdom's busy highways.

"I definitely won't like to drive," said Ms Fayza al-Shammary, a 22-year-old saleswoman. "I like to be a princess with someone opening the car door for me and driving me anywhere."

Concerns that women drivers will face abuse in a country where strict segregation rules usually prevent women from interacting with unrelated men prompted a new law last month with jail and hefty fines for sexual harassment.

The Interior Ministry plans to hire female traffic police officers for the first time, but it is unclear when they will be deployed.

The decision to lift the ban in the tightly-controlled Muslim kingdom - where once-forbidden cinemas and concerts have also returned - is expected to boost the economy, with industries from car sales to insurance set to reap returns.

It should also encourage more women to enter the workforce and raise productivity, if only modestly at first.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 24, 2018, with the headline 'Saudi women gear up for new freedom as driving ban ends'. Print Edition | Subscribe