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Celebrations, tears as Saudi Arabia overturns ban on women driving

By AFP - Jun 24,2018 - Last updated at Jun 24,2018

Bahraini Nouf Al Maloud (right) hugs Saudi Zahoor Assiri (left) as they arrive in east Saudi Arabia in their cars to promote and congratulate Saudi women on the lifting of the driving ban in Saudi Arabia on Sunday (Reuters photo)

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — 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 — 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.

 

‘Be gentle to women’ 

 

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.

It 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 3 million women 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, has also lifted a ban on cinemas and mixed-gender concerts, following his public vow to return the austere kingdom to moderate Islam.

 

Crackdown

 

However, much of the initial optimism over his reforms appears to have been knocked by a major crackdown on women driving activists.

Authorities have said nine of 17 arrested people remain behind bars, accused of undermining security and aiding enemies of the state.

The detainees include 28-year-old Loujain Al Hathloul — also held in 2014 for more than 70 days for attempting to drive from neighbouring United Arab Emirates to Saudi Arabia — and Aziza Al Yousef, a retired professor at Riyadh’s King Saud University.

State-backed newspapers have published front-page photos of some of the activists with the word “traitor” stamped across them in red.

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Comments

TODAY IS A RED LETTER DAY AND MAY BE THE BEGINING OF A CHANGE OF HEART TOWARDS WOMEN. INFACT HISTORY HAS BEEN MADE AND ITS ALWAYS BETTER TO BE LATE THAN THE LATE. HOWEVER THE IRONY IS THAT THE KINGDOM HAS BEEN THE ONLY COUNTRY ON EARTH THAT LOCKS UP WOMEN AND SHACKLE THEM BY KEEPING THEM UNDER THE LOCK AND KEY BONDAGE. LITTLE BY LITTLE, SAUDI WILL BECOME ONE THE MODERN AND OPEN MINDED SOCIETY AND THANKS TO THE CROWN PRINCE FOR HIS REFORM. JUSTICE DENIED IS JUSTICE DEFFERED. CONGRATULATIONS LADIES AND START YOUR ENGINES.
i WILL USE THIS CHANCE TO DRAW THE ATTENTION OF THE WHO TO FUND A RESEARCH TO EVALUATE IF THERE IS ANY HEALTH IMPACT THAT IS AFFECTED BY THE DRESS CODE OF WOMEN IN THE ARAB WORLD. WE KNOW THE CORRELATION BETWEEN SUN SHINE
VITAMINE D LEVEL SO ARE WE COMPROMISING ANY PUBLIC HEALTH OF WOMEN? THE ONLY WAY TO ANSWER THIS QUESTION IS TO CONDUCT A WELL CONTROLLED COHORT STUDY ON THIS TOPIC. IN FACT I WILL RECOMMEND THIS TOPIC FOR A DOCTORAL CANDIDATE FOR HIS OR HER THESIS TOPIC. THIS IDEA HAS BEEN FLOATING FOR A LONG TIME BUT WAS INCUBATED AND SEALED UNDER LOCK AND KEY. NOW THAT THE POLITICAL TABOO VEILS HAS STARTED TO COME OFF, MAY BE IT CAN BE EXTENDED TO A REVIEW AND STUDY THE THE EFFECT OF SOME CULTURAL NORMS ON PUBLIC HEALTH. ONE BY ONE AND SLOW BUT STEADY, WOMEN WILL BE FREED ALL OVER THE WORLD.

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