Women in Saudi Arabia are now allowed to drive for the first time since the religiously conservative kingdom overturned the world’s only ban on female motorists as critics note activists who fought for the right to drive are still in prison.
The lifting of the prohibition on Sunday, which follows a sweeping crackdown on prominent women’s rights activists who staunchly advocated for the right to drive, was first announced last year as part of the then newly-appointed Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s plans to reform the country.
“Now every woman has the right to drive a car anywhere in the kingdom,” state broadcaster al-Ekhbariya quoted traffic authorities spokesman Colonel Samy bin Mohammad as saying on Sunday.
Saudi Arabia, which has some of the world’s tightest restrictions on women, started issuing its first driving licences for female motorists earlier this month.
On Thursday, it launched a three-day campaign called “place your trust in God and drive” to educate women on driving and raise awareness about safety regulations.
Activists in the region welcomed the lifting on the ban but cautioned that there were still many hurdles for women wanting to get behind the wheel.
“This is a very good step, but of course there are so many challenges that women are facing now with the lifting of the ban,” said Suad Abu-Dayyeh, Middle East consultant for the Equality Now non-governmental organisation.
“The fees for having lessons are six times more than men,” she told Al Jazeera from Jordan’s capital, Amman. “This is one of the restrictions and this makes women not being able to access driving licenses in a fast way, in addition to the limited driving schools in Saudi Arabia.”
Following the lift of the ban, videos and pictures posted on social media showed women behind the wheel.
Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed goes out for a late night ride with his daughter: pic.twitter.com/z52cSyvYua
— Ahmed Al Omran (@ahmed) June 23, 2018
— Bashayer (@Bashayer__82) June 24, 2018
شاهد.. سيدة سعودية تصف تجربتها في قيادة السيارة صباح اليوم الأحد في شوارع #الرياض
— صـ حـ يـ فـ ـة ا لـ مـ د يـ نـ ـة (@Almadinanews) June 24, 2018
Women’s efforts to overturn the ban in a country that h go back decades.
In 1990, more than 40 women drove their cars in the capital, Riyadh – the first public demonstration against the prohibition.
Women are set to take to the roads. After almost three decades of activism – this is a literal and symbolic victory for women's rights activists. But while they fought to put women behind the wheel, now they are behind bars. #StandwithSaudiFeminists @hrw https://t.co/BRwFNQbtDQ pic.twitter.com/6QgJi3gPnm
— Rothna Begum (@Rothna_Begum) June 23, 2018
In 2007, activists submitted a petition to the then-King Abdullah, asking for the right to drive. The next year, one of those activists – Wajeha al-Huwaider – made a film of herself driving and posted it online.
Dozens of women followed suit over the next few years.
In a reversal of the long-standing rule, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud signed a royal decree in September 2017 that said women would be allowed to drive “in accordance with Islamic laws”.
The move was described as being part of the crown prince’s reform drive.
Concern over activists’ arrests
But the arrest of women’s rights activists over the past few weeks has dampened the mood among observers and citizens alike and cast doubt over Riyadh’s commitment to effecting change as part of its so-called Vision 2030 economic reform programme.
The prominent activists had long been advocating an end to the ban on Saudi women driving and the abolishment of the male guardianship system.
They were branded threats to national security and accused of being foreign agents. They face up to 20 years in prison if convicted.
“These women have been known for years for campaigning and not for trying to harm the interests of the country,” said Abu-Dayyeh, calling for their release.
“Nobody knows where they are now, whether they have access to lawyers, whether they have access to justice, and we are really very much concerned about their lives and what’s going on with them.”
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a statement the reason for the arrest is to silence the women and prevent others from participating in activism.
“Back in September, around the time of the announcement that the driving ban would be lifted, authorities called Saudi women activists and told them not to speak to the media. The purpose seemed to be to ensure that the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, would get all the credit,” the statement said.
“When Saudi women get behind the wheel Sunday, we must remember the true champions behind this reform who are languishing in prison or silenced,” HRW continued.
“The crown prince may claim credit, but the rest of the world needs to let him know it is not deceived.”
“When Saudi women get behind the wheel today, we must remember the true champions behind this reform who are languishing in prison or silenced.” #SaudiArabia #SaudiWomenDriving https://t.co/aADmmojlSX
— Ash Streeter (@ashstreeterrrrr) June 24, 2018
And despite Sunday’s small victory, the country’s guardianship system remains in place, under which a male family member – usually the father, husband or brother – must grant permission for a woman’s study, travel and other activities.
Activists in Saudi Arabia and the region say that the guardianship issue is at the core of the fight for women’s rights.
“We are calling on the government to end the male guardianship system because this system restricts not just women’s freedom of movement but also in their daily life in terms of divorce, custody and alimony,” said Abu-Dayyeh.
“Women can’t travel abroad without the permission of their male guardian, they can’t study abroad, they can’t issue a passport – these are basic rights of women, and at the end of the day they have to get them.”