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
"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
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,"
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
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
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
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
"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,"
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
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
"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."