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Saudi Women Driving as Ban Lifted      06/24 11:40

   RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) -- Saudi women drove to work and ran errands on 
Sunday, relishing the freedom to move about without relying on men after the 
kingdom lifted the world's last remaining ban on women driving.

   It's a historic moment for women who have been at the mercy of their 
husbands, fathers, brothers and drivers to move around. The ban had relegated 
women to the backseat, restricting when they could meet friends, where they 
could spend their time and how they could plan out their day.

   "It feels beautiful. It was a dream for us so when it happens in reality, I 
am between belief and disbelief--- between a feeling of joy and astonishment," 
said Mabkhoutah al-Mari as she pulled up to order a drive-thru coffee on her 
way to work.

   The 27-year-old mother of two is a driving instructor for women and already 
had a driver's license from the U.S., where she'd spent time in Tennessee 
studying. But on this morning, she drove freely in her hometown of Riyadh for 
the first time. As she prepared to set off on the road, her older brother sent 
her off with a kiss on the forehead and a wave.

   For most of her life al-Mari relied on drivers hired by her family, and she 
and her sisters had to coordinate drop-offs and pick-ups.

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

   Some women didn't wait until the morning to drive, jumping in their cars at 
the stroke of midnight and steering their way through the capital's still busy 
streets.

   "I'm speechless. I'm so excited it's actually happening," said Hessah 
al-Ajaji, who drove her family's Lexus down Riyadh's Tahlia Street after 
midnight.

   Al-Ajaji had a U.S. driver's license before obtaining a Saudi one and 
appeared comfortable at the wheel as she pulled up and parked. As for the male 
drivers on the road, "they were really supportive and cheering and smiling," 
she said.

   For nearly three decades, outspoken Saudi women and men had called for women 
to have the right to drive as a symbol of other changes they said were needed 
in the deeply conservative kingdom.

   While there was never explicitly a law against women driving in Saudi 
Arabia, a ban was enforced by police and licenses were not issued to women. The 
driving ban had been a stain on the country's reputation and hindered women's 
ability to contribute to the economy.

   In 1990, during the first driving campaign by activists, women who drove in 
Riyadh lost their jobs and were barred from traveling abroad, even as women in 
other conservative Muslim countries drove freely.

   Ultraconservatives in Saudi Arabia had long warned that allowing women to 
drive would lead to sin and expose women to harassment. Ahead of lifting the 
driving ban, the kingdom passed a law against sexual harassment with up to five 
years in prison for the most severe cases.

   Three of the women who'd taken part in that 1990 protest and several others 
who campaigned years later for the right to drive were arrested last month, 
just weeks before the kingdom lifted its ban. Some have since been temporarily 
released.

   The arrests have cast a pall on the social openings being pushed by 
32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has attempted to brand 
himself a reformer.

   Three of those still detained--- Aziza al-Yousef, Loujain al-Hathloul and 
Eman al-Nafjan--- are seen as icons of the women's rights movement in Saudi 
Arabia. They had also been calling for an end to guardianship laws that give 
male relatives final say over whether a woman can marry, obtain a passport or 
travel abroad.

   The government has accused them of vague crimes, including working with 
"foreign entities" to harm the interests of the kingdom. Their arrest, however, 
appears to send a message that only the king and his powerful son and heir will 
decide the pace of change.

   Although women can now drive in Saudi Arabia and don't need male permission 
to obtain a license, most will still need the support of a father or husband to 
drive.

   As she drove through the streets of Riyadh, Ammal Farahat, a mother of two, 
said every effort or risk taken over the years has made a difference and led to 
Sunday's change.

   "It's like they say the ocean is made of little drops of water and that's 
exactly how I feel today. It's the efforts of everyone, little drops of sweat," 
Farahat said.

   With state-backed support for women driving, more Saudis are openly 
expressing their support for the decision, saying it is long overdue.

   Not all women are driving at once, though. The overwhelming majority of 
women in Saudi Arabia still don't have licenses. Many haven't had a chance to 
take the gender-segregated driving courses that were first offered to women 
only three months ago. There's a waiting list of several months for the classes 
on offer in major cities. And the classes can be costly, running several 
hundred dollars.

   Other women already own cars driven by chauffeurs and are in no rush to 
drive themselves. In many cases, women say they'll wait to see how the 
situation on the streets pans out and how male drivers react.

   "I will get my driver's license, but I won't drive because I have a driver. 
I am going to leave it for an emergency. It is one of my rights and I will keep 
it in my purse," said 60-year-old Lulwa al-Fireiji.

   While some still quietly oppose the change, there are men openly embracing 
it.

   "I see that this decision will make women equal to men and this will show us 
that women are capable of doing anything a man can do," said Fawaz al-Harbi. "I 
am very supportive and in fact I have been waiting for this decision so that my 
mother, my sisters will drive."


(KA)

 
 
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