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Now, Saudi women Can drive freely for coffee, ice cream
June 25, 2018
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June 24 turned out to be a day of immense happiness for many Saudi women, when a decades-old ban on driving was lifted by the government. Many, bursting with elation at the unprecedented liberation on wheels and ‘feeling free like a bird,’ vroomed around town in their cars, some blaring music. The freedom to drive, without fear of arrest, was like a breath of fresh air. The Gulf Today assesses the celebratory mood


Saudi women celebrated taking the wheel for the first time in decades on Sunday 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.

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 talkshow 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.

Flower shower

Euphoria was mixed with disbelief as women across the kingdom flooded social media with videos of their maiden car rides, with a heavy presence of policemen, some of whom distributed flowers 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.

Many Saudi women ebulliently declared plans online to drive 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.

“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.

‘Be gentle to women’

The move is expected to boost women’s employment, and according to a Bloomberg estimate, add $90 billion to economic output by 2030.

For now, the women taking to the roads appear mainly to be those who have swapped foreign licences for Saudi ones after undergoing a practical test.

Some three million women in Saudi Arabia could receive licences and actively begin driving by 2020, according to consultancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers.

A handful of female driving schools have cropped up in several cities, training women to drive cars as well as Harley Davidson motorbikes, scenes unimaginable even a year ago.

But many women fear they are still vulnerable to sexist attitudes in a nation where male “guardians” – their fathers, husbands or other relatives – can exercise arbitrary authority to make decisions on their behalf.

The government has preemptively addressed concerns of abuse by outlawing sexual harassment, and authorities have sternly warned against stalking women drivers.

“To all men I say, be gentle towards women” drivers, popular Saudi singer Mohammed Abdu said in an online video.

Prince Mohammed, appointed heir to the most powerful throne in the Middle East a year ago this month, has also lifted a ban on cinemas and mixed-gender concerts, following his vow to return the austere kingdom to moderate Islam.

“Saudi Arabia’s crown prince wants it both ways: to be lauded as a reformer on the world stage, and to ensure his status as the only reformer at home.”

Revolutionary

The independence is going to revolutionise life for many , including Pilar al Amad, from Kohbar, on Saudi Arabia’s east coast. If the rules had changed a few months earlier, she says her recent family tragedy may have been a little easier to deal with.

“I was pregnant with twins and my husband was away with work when I went into labour,” she said.

“I had to rely on people from work to drive me to the hospital and it was really stressful. I lost one of my twins a week after delivery. I feel like if I had just been able to drive the whole situation would have been easier.”

Pilar’s surviving baby daughter has been in an intensive care unit for the last three months.

“I can’t wait to be able to come and go as I please without having to go when my husband goes or else pay for an Uber,” she added.

Lifting the driving ban is a deeply symbolic move in a country where the guardianship system means that most decisions in a woman’s life are made for her by her father, husband or son.

The kingdom’s newly appointed and immensely powerful Crown Prince, 32-year-old Mohammed Bin Salman, is the driving force behind the new measure aimed at liberalising Saudi society, which will, crucially, bring more women into the workforce.

Allowing women to drive is part of ‘Vision 2030’, an ambitious roadmap of socio-economic reforms designed to wean the kingdom off its dependence on oil revenue. Other bold moves include curbing the powers of the once notorious religious police and even a promise the conservative kingdom will return to a more “moderate” form of Islam.

Before Prince Mohammed was appointed Crown Prince a year ago, such rapid change was unthinkable. In visits before and after his appointment, however, The Independent has witnessed how many ordinary Saudis have begun to relax into the changes.

In the pink


In the Red Sea city of Jeddah, more and more women are choosing to forego wearing headscarves altogether, and shops sell abayas – the cloak-like robe women must wear by law – in navy, grey and white as well as black. Even in the more conservative desert capital, Riyadh, people now blast Western pop music from cars and groups of teenagers – both boys and girls – roam around parks and malls unsupervised.

Newspapers and television stations across the country have gone into overdrive celebrating “history in the making”.

Pink “ladies’ parking” spaces have sprung up in major cities and community events focusing on family road safety organised under the slogan “Tawakkali wa Intaliqi”, or ‘Have Faith and Drive”, are planned across the country.

“Everyone is embracing the changes,” said Susan Newbon, a driving instructor from South Wales who is training up Saudi women to teach their own driving students and hold exams.

“This is a young nation, where people know change is overdue. It’s logistically a massive undertaking but Saudis are more than ready to be able to do this. There’s a real sense of celebration.”

Agence France-Presse/The Independent

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