Saudi women celebrated taking the wheel for the first time in decades today as the kingdom overturned the world’s only ban on female motorists, a historic reform expected to usher in a new era of social mobility.
The much-trumpeted move is part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s plan to modernise the conservative petrostate — but it has been dented by the jailing of female activists who long opposed the driving ban.
Women in Riyadh and other cities began zipping around streets bathed in amber light soon after the ban was lifted at midnight, with some blasting music from behind the wheel.
“I feel free like a bird,” said talk show host and writer Samar Almogren as she cruised across the capital.
Television presenter Sabika al-Dosari called it “a historic moment for every Saudi woman” before driving a sedan across the border to the kingdom of Bahrain.
The lifting of the ban, long a glaring symbol of repression, is expected to be transformative for many women, freeing them from dependence on private chauffeurs or male relatives.
Euphoria and disbelief mixed as women across the kingdom flooded social media with videos of their maiden car rides, while some policemen among the large number out on the streets distributed roses to the first-time drivers.
“This is a great achievement,” billionaire Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal said as his daughter Reem drove a family SUV, with his granddaughters applauding from the back seat.
“Now women have their freedom,” he added in a video posted on Twitter. Some women ebulliently declared online they were driving themselves to work or their mothers for coffee or ice cream, a mundane experience elsewhere in the world but a dazzling novelty in the desert kingdom.
“The jubilance, confidence and pride expressed by Saudi women driving for the first time in their country, without fear of arrest, brought tears to my eyes,” tweeted activist Hala al-Dosari, while lauding the jailed campaigners.
“I’m happy and relieved that… girls in Saudi will live a bit freer than their mothers.”But many women are keeping away, testing reactions in a society torn between tradition and social change –— and bracing for a possible backlash from hardliners who have long preached that allowing female motorists would promote promiscuity and sin.
Authorities appeared to project that the reform had religious sanction, with the kingdom’s top clerical council on Sunday reiterating that the lifting of the ban was in line with Islamic values.
The reform was catalysed in large measure by what experts characterise as economic pain in the kingdom owing to a protracted oil slump. – AFP