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A 21 June 2018 photo of car saleswoman Maram al-Hazer at the Al-Jazirah Ford showroom in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

(Photo: AP)

Saudi Women Take the Driver’s Seat As Ban Ends

Saudi Arabia was the only country in the world that banned women from driving. 

Published24 Jun 2018, 07:56 AM IST
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4 min read

Saudi women took the wheel with much gusto, steering their way through the busy city streets, minutes after the country’s ban on women drivers was lifted on Sunday.

It’s a euphoric and historic moment for women in Saudi Arabia who have had to rely on their husbands, fathers, brothers and drivers to run basic errands, get to work, visit friends or even drop kids off at school. The ban had relegated Saudi women to the backseat, restricting when and how they move around.

But Sunday marked a new dawn in the lives of Saudi women as they joined women across the world in being able to get behind the wheel of a car and simply experience the joy of driving.

“I'm speechless. I'm so excited it's actually happening,” said Hessah al-Ajaji, who drove her family's Lexus down the capital's busy Tahlia Street after midnight.

Hessah al-Ajaji had a US driver’s licence before obtaining a Saudi one and appeared comfortable at the wheel as she pulled up and parked. As for the male drivers on the road, “they were really supportive, cheering and smiling,” she said.

In a few hours, she says she'll drive herself to work for the first time in Saudi Arabia.

For nearly three decades, outspoken Saudi women and the men who supported them had been demanding the right to drive. They even faced arrest for defying the ban as women in other Muslim countries drove freely.

In 1990, during the first driving campaign by activists, women who got behind the wheels of their cars in the capital, Riyadh, lost their jobs, faced severe stigmatisation and were barred from travel abroad for a year.

Ultraconservatives in Saudi Arabia had long warned that allowing women to drive would lead to sin and expose women to harassment. Ahead of allowing women to drive, the kingdom passed a law against sexual harassment with up to five years imprisonment for the most severe cases.

Criticism against women driving has largely been muted since since King Salman announced last year that they would be allowed to drive.

Simultaneously, however, at least 10 of the most outspoken supporters of women's rights were arrested just weeks before the ban was lifted, signalling that only the king and his powerful son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, will decide the pace of change.

With state-backed support for the move, many Saudis now say they support the decision allowing women to drive and say that it was long overdue.

Not all women are driving at once, though. The overwhelming majority of women in Saudi Arabia still don’t have licences. Many haven’t had a chance to take the gender-segregated driving courses that were first offered to women only three months ago. There’s also a waiting list of several months for the classes on offer in major cities. And the classes can be costly, running into several hundred dollars.

Other women already own cars driven by chauffeurs and are in no rush to drive themselves. In many cases, women say they'll wait before rushing to drive to see how the situation on the streets pans out and how male drivers react.

“I will get my driver's licence, but I won't drive because I have a driver. I am going to leave it for an emergency. It is one of my rights and I will keep it in my purse,” said 60-year-old Lulwa al-Fireiji.

While some still quietly oppose the change, there are men openly embracing it.

"I see that this decision will make women equal to men and this will show us that women are capable of doing anything a man can do," said Fawaz al-Harbi. "I am very supportive and, in fact, I have been waiting for this decision so that my mother, my sisters will drive."

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