Flowers and joy for Saudi Arabia's new female drivers

KSAWomenDrive18JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia – The sound of engines revving filled parking lots in malls and elsewhere in this Red Sea port city on early Sunday morning as the desert kingdom lifted its ban on women driving.

“As an independent woman, driving is one of the main aspects of my life that’s been missing,” said Shefa Mohamed Aldwelah, a 26-year-old Saudi woman who was preparing to take to the road in her car. “With it, I will be able to open the door to new horizons.”

Parking spaces painted pink were unveiled in the run-up to the historic move. Car companies like Ford and gasoline retailer Shell launched advertising campaigns that featured female drivers who are now potential customers.

"Our sisterly women drivers, we wish you continued safety," flashed the roadside digital signs operated by the government's department of motor vehicles. Police officers handed out roses to women entering highway ramps at midnight.

Saudi King Salman lifted the ban as part of a package of reforms designed to loosen the rigid rules governing the ultra-traditional Islamic country’s society and economy. The king’s son and successor, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, has spearheaded the reforms amid unstable oil prices that have threatened to destabilize the country’s political order.

The lifting of the ban might already be paying dividends.

"We are already seeing more women in our showroom," said Maram al Hazar, a manager at Al Jazirah Vehicles, a Ford dealership in Riyadh. "Many of them say that they are on waiting lists for drivers’ education classes that are already booked for the first half of 2018"

Saudi women have been seeking the right to drive for years.

“I’ve waited long enough and now to know that my daughter-in-law, and granddaughters, will have a normal life I feel at peace," said Layla Moussa, 67, who has three granddaughters. “I didn’t think it would happen in my lifetime.”

But civil rights activists noted that Saudi activists who have fought to overturn the ban remain imprisoned for challenging the ban in the past.

“There can be no real celebration on June 24 while the women who campaigned for the right to drive and their supporters remain behind bars,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement.

Human Rights Watch said Saudi authorities had arrested and detained a handful of female and male women’s rights campaigners in the run-up to the end of the driving ban.

But many Saudi women were less concerned about civil rights and more elated about the practical implications of driving.

“It’s going to make things much, much easier – going to work, dropping the kids off to school and just having the choice to go out whenever we want to,” said Nada Farsi, an instructor in the dental school at King Abdulaziz University and mother of two. “Before, we’d have to wait for the Uber driver if it was too hot to walk. It could take up to an hour to wait. Now a ten-minute drive is exactly that: a ten-minute drive.”

Driving presents challenges, of course, said Aldwelah. But she was prepared to face them.

“I am afraid of driving for the first time,” she said. “But it is not driving in this country that I am afraid of. It is the fact that I am sitting behind the wheel. I believe that every single licensed person around the world went through the same fear on their first ride.”

Photo: Saudi police officers welcoming the new women drivers with flowers and roses on the the first day that women are allowed to drive in the religiously conservative country.
Credit: Courtesy of Twitter user Romeu Monteiro (06/24/18)

Story/photo published date: 06/24/18

A version of this story was published in USA Today.
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