Saudi Arabia will allow women to drive from Sunday, ending the world’s only ban on female motorists, a historic reform marred by what rights groups call an expanding crackdown on activists.
Overturning the decades-long ban, a glaring symbol of repression against women, is part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s much-trumpeted reform drive to modernise the conservative petrostate.
Potentially thousands of female drivers are set to take the wheel on Sunday, a long-awaited rite of passage for women in the kingdom that many say could usher in a new era of social mobility.
“It is a very important step and essential for women’s free mobility,” Hana al-Khamri, author of the forthcoming book “Female Journalists in Gender Apartheid Saudi Arabia”, told AFP.
“Women in Saudi Arabia live under patriarchal structures. Allowing them to sit behind the wheel will help challenge social and gender norms that hinder mobility, autonomy and independence.”
For many women the move should prove transformative, freeing them from their dependence on private chauffeurs or male relatives and resulting in big family savings.
“It’s a relief,” Najah al-Otaibi, a senior analyst at pro-Saudi think-tank Arabia Foundation, told AFP.
“Saudi women feel a sense of justice. They have long been denied a basic human right which has kept them confined and dependent on men, making it impossible to exercise a normal life.”
– Coffee and ice cream –
The kingdom earlier this month began issuing its first driving licences to women in decades, with some swapping their foreign permits 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 cities like Riyadh and Jeddah, training women to drive cars and also Harley Davidson motorbikes — scenes that were unimaginable even a year ago.
Many Saudi women have ebulliently declared plans on social media to drive their mothers for coffee or ice cream as soon as the ban ends on Sunday, a mundane experience elsewhere in the world but a dazzling novelty in the desert kingdom.
For decades, hardliners cited austere Islamic interpretations to justify the driving ban, with some asserting that women lack the intelligence to drive and that lifting the prohibition would promote promiscuity.
The decision to lift the ban was catalysed in large measure by what experts characterise as economic pain in the kingdom owing to a protracted oil slump.
The move is expected to boost women’s employment, and according to a Bloomberg estimate, add $90 billion to economic output by 2030.
Many women fear they are still easy prey for conservatives 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, with a prison term of up to five years and a maximum penalty of 300,000 riyals ($80,000).