Saudi women hit the road as kingdom lifts ban on female drivers

Frederick Owens
June 24, 2018

It may also take some time for enough driving schools that cater exclusively to women to be set up in Saudi Arabia, though when they are established they will "create a large number of job opportunities for female driving instructors", says PwC. Alcohol and music are banned. The reform agenda is being spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

She said: "I don't think there was an immediate connection between the two".

"Now, thanks to God, I can plan out my own schedule and my errands and my daughters' errands", al-Mari said.

Until now, Saudi Arabia was the only country in the world where women were legally required to be driven by chauffeurs or travel with male family members.

The move is part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's wide-ranging drive to modernise the conservative petrostate - but it has coincided with a sweeping crackdown on female activists who long opposed the driving ban.

Women will even be allowed to work as drivers.

Yet criticism remains rare, especially after a crackdown on dissent including the arrests of some 30 clerics, intellectuals and activists last September and more than a dozen women's rights activists over the past month.

For almost three decades, Saudi women and the men who support them have been calling for women to have the right to drive. "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 women to be issued a licence. Myself as a man, or any man, when he sees a woman, he'll give her the priority and give her the right of way to drive, and protect her.

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The driving ban had been a stain on the country's reputation and hindered women's ability to contribute to the economy.

Asked whether there would now be female Saudi racing drivers, she replied: "For sure, definitely".

For some, though, the jubilation Sunday at realizing a hard-won freedom will be tempered by the arrests last month of a number of Saudi rights activists, including some who have played a prominent role in the fight for women's right to drive.

The most emphatic supporters of women's right to drive, however, have been silenced.

Pro-government media outlets published photos of the detained activists and accused them of being traitors. Some have been temporarily released. "Activists have reported that people are afraid to speak out", said Samah Hadid, Amnesty International's Middle East Campaigns Director.

The report said the government maintains a delicate balance between reformers and conservatives by "monopolsing the reform process", pre-empting and suppressing grassroots activism or, on occasion, tolerating it as a safety valve for expressing grievances.

Activists have already begun campaigning to end the guardianship system, which has been chipped away at slowly over the years. The women practice riding in a closed circuit on the outskirts of the capital.

She is also the first woman to import a Ferrari into Saudi Arabia, and has taken her 458 Spider to racetracks around the world to take part in track days, workshops and professional racing courses.

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