Saudi Arabian women behind the wheel for the first time

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Saudi Arabian women behind the wheel for the first time


Women in Saudi Arabia took to the roads for the first time on Sunday as a decades-long ban on female drivers was lifted, a landmark moment for women who previously had been forced to depend on men for their movement.

Shortly after midnight, women grabbed the steering wheel in major cities across the nation amid the noticeable presence of police cars lining the sides of major roads. “We are all your brothers,” read billboards welcoming the new female drivers.

“I’m really excited. The past two years were really hard,” said Addana al-Hugail, a 29-year-old woman who works for an investment bank, as she drove a white Lexus sedan in quiet backstreets in Riyadh’s northern al-Wuroud district.

Ms Hugail, who learned driving while attending graduate school in Los Angeles, found it difficult to adjust to the reality of sharing a driver with her mother and three sisters after she returned to Saudi Arabia in 2015.

“It was very hard to manage the time between us,” she said. “Having only one driver is a problem because I have to plan my whole day with the family around the driver’s availability.”

The decision to allow women to drive, announced last September, was part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reform plan to relax social restrictions as he attempts to restructure the kingdom’s economy and make it less dependent on oil revenues.

The plan also aims to spur growth in the private sector and create jobs for young Saudis. Officials hope that allowing women to drive would help more of them to join the job market and decrease the female unemployment rate, which currently stands at more than 35 per cent.

While Saudi women activists have demanded the right to drive for many years, starting with a major protest during the Gulf war in 1990, their efforts until recently hit many roadblocks. Government officials said the people were not ready, and conservative clerics condemned such calls as attempts to westernise society.

But as Crown Prince Mohammed rose in power over the past two years, he stripped the once-feared religious police of their power and pushed a social liberalisation agenda that includes allowing cinemas and easing restrictions on mixing between men and women.

However, the pace of change has been jarring for some people in a traditional society who often take to social media to express their anger, prompting the government to react in ways that appear designed to contain such anger.

Several women’s rights activists who have campaigned for lifting the ban on driving were arrested last month. Some of them were released, but at least nine remain in detention. The government accused the detained activists of “suspicious contact with foreign entities” to destabilise the kingdom.

Human rights groups dismissed these allegations and said the arrests were possibly motivated by authorities’ fear that activists would take credit for recent reforms like allowing women to drive.

Last week, King Salman fired the chairman of the General Entertainment Authority after some people in the audience at a Russian circus in the capital posted videos and tweets protesting that female performers were dressed in immodest clothing. The show continued for another day after the official was sacked.

“Saudi Arabia has never tolerated dissent. The authorities prohibit protests, trade unions and independent human rights organisations,” Rothna Begum, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, wrote on Friday. “Even so, the hypocrisy of cracking down on women’s rights activists while taking credit for the reforms they have long demanded is remarkable.”

It is unclear of the recent crackdown would deter women from demanding more changes like ending male guardianship, but activists say gaining the right to drive would heighten their awareness what it means to be independent.

Fawziah al-Bakr, an education professor who was among the women who participated in the 1990 driving protest, wrote in a local newspaper last week that driving would lead to a change of mentality for women.

“Saudi women will be finally able to enter a previously prohibited zone which is thinking by themselves and for themselves, and making decisions in a second that could be the difference between life and death,” she said.

Fawziah al-Bakr, an education professor who was among the women who participated in the 1990 driving protest, wrote in a local newspaper last week that driving would lead to a change of mentality for women.

“Saudi women will be finally able to enter a previously prohibited zone which is thinking by themselves and for themselves, and making decisions in a second that could be the difference between life and death,” she said.



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