Saudi women gear up for new freedom as driving ban ends
Women will hit the roads in Saudi Arabia on Sunday 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, Reuters reported.
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 life,” said Samira al-Ghamdi, a 47-year-old psychologist from Jeddah, one of the first Saudi women to be issued with a driving license.
The lifting of the ban, which for years drew international condemnation and comparisons to the Taliban’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 licenses only began converting them earlier this month, so the number of new 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 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 women traffic police for the first time, but it is unclear when they will be deployed.