Saudi women celebrate lifting of driving ban

Women across Saudi Arabia celebrated the lifting of the ban by driving for the first time amid good will and cheers from both sexes.
Sunday 01/07/2018
Hard-won freedom. A Saudi woman reacts as she is about to drive to Jeddah’s Corniche to cycle, on June 24. (Reuters)
Hard-won freedom. A Saudi woman reacts as she is about to drive to Jeddah’s Corniche to cycle, on June 24. (Reuters)

LONDON - The day that many in Saudi Arabia thought they would never see came June 24 when the kingdom dropped its female driving ban, ushering in an era of hope and modernity for Saudi women.

The move is part of the Saudi Vision 2030 reform initiative, which includes increasing Saudi women’s roles in society and the labour market.

“My whole body is tingling right now. To get in my car, to hold this steering wheel, after having lived my entire life, since the moment I entered this world, in the back seat… This is now my responsibility and I’m more than ready to bear it,” Samar Almogren, a Saudi talk show host said on television about driving in the kingdom for the first time.

Women across Saudi Arabia celebrated the lifting of the ban by driving for the first time amid good will and cheers from both sexes. Traffic police handed roses to female drivers across the kingdom.

The Arabic hashtag “The Saudi woman drives” trended worldwide with Saudi women sharing videos of driving. A post of Saudi billionaire Prince al-Waleed bin Talal being driven around Riyadh by his daughter Reem trended worldwide.

“This is a great achievement,” Prince al-Waleed said. “Now women have their freedom.”

A significant segment of Saudi society is still vehemently against lifting the ban, however. Officials and clerics had given numerous justifications, ranging from women being unfit to drive to a lack of infrastructure, throughout the 30 years of the driving ban.

It appears the mood is changing. Even members of the religious establishment have given their blessing to women driving.

Influential cleric Ayed al-Qarnee appeared on several media outlets, including the kingdom’s news channel Al Ekhbariya, to speak on lifting the ban from an Islamic doctrine perspective.

Qarnee, who has more than 20 million followers on Twitter, said that, after careful study, clerics decided to support an end to the ban. He said Saudis are “part of this world” and that lifting the ban would resolve “problems women used to suffer from.”

Qarnee advised male drivers to respect their female counterparts because they represent “your honour, your sister, your daughter, your mother, your wife, half of the society.”

Regarding religious extremists who oppose lifting the ban, he said: “We have a version of moderation that does not allow extremists to drag the nation into extremism.”

Saudi media joined in the celebration with photos of Saudi women driving cars for the first time gracing most major Saudi publications’ front pages. Al Yaum newspaper in Dammam carried a front-page photo of a woman sitting in her car with the headline “Women drive their cars.” The Okaz daily led with an optimistic editorial headlined “The beginning of the road.”

Important steps were taken over the last year in preparation of the driving ban ending, including the relaxing restrictions on Saudi women, such as easing aspects of the kingdom’s male guardianship system, granting women independent access to government services, jobs, education and health care without the need for prior consent and the establishment of strict anti-harassment laws.

The Saudi Interior Ministry warned that males guilty of harassing female drivers, including taking unsolicited photos, could be jailed for five years and fined $800,000. Authorities also stressed that female drivers breaking the law will not get special privileges.

More than 120,000 Saudi women applied for driving lessons in Riyadh, Jeddah, Dammam and Tabuk, the Interior Ministry said. The kingdom established six driving schools for women.

“Demand is very high and we are seeking to absorb it and work to enable women to obtain licences in a way that does not compromise training standards or traffic awareness,” Interior Ministry spokesman for security Mansour al-Turki said at a news conference.