Saudi women gear up for new freedom as driving ban ends

T-Mag Saturday 23/June/2018 16:26 PM
By: Times News Service
Saudi women gear up for new freedom as driving ban ends

Riyadh: Women will hit the roads in Saudi Arabia on Sunday with the lifting of the world's last ban on female drivers. The move, ordered last September by Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia, is part of sweeping reforms pushed by his 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 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 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 physical harassment.
The Interior Ministry plans to hire women traffic police for the first time, but it is unclear when they will be deployed.
The decision to lift the ban in the kingdom - where once-forbidden cinemas and concerts have also returned - is expected to boost the economy, with industries from car sales to insurance to reap returns.
It should also encourage more women into the workforce and raise productivity, if only modestly at first. Auto companies have seized the moment with theatrical ads marking the end of the ban, and private parking garages designated "ladies" areas with pink signage.
Social media is also celebrating with tweets like #You_Will_Drive_and_the_People_Are_With_You. Some reactions have been more derisive or expressed concern about social impacts.
Much of the kingdom's overwhelmingly young population supports Prince Mohammed's reforms, but many Saudis fear their speed could provoke a backlash from religious conservatives once seen as dominant.
Activists and diplomats have speculated that the arrests of more than a dozen women's rights advocates over the past month were aimed at appeasing conservative elements or at sending a message to activists not to push demands too far. The crown prince's modernisation efforts have won praise at home and abroad.
Even with the end of the driving ban, Saudi Arabia remains one of the most restrictive countries for women, who need permission from legally mandated male guardians for important decisions such as foreign travel and marriage.
Activists have already begun campaigning to end the guardianship system, which has been chipped away at slowly over the years. Prince Mohammed declared in an interview earlier this year that he believes men and women are equal.