Saudi women sit behind wheel of change as ban on driving is lifted

At the stroke of midnight on Saturday, Saudi women won the freedom to drive to a bright new future.

Many of them, who were waiting for this great moment, turned the ignition key, stepped on the gas and zipped through the streets of Riyadh and other cities in the wee hours of Sunday.

As they drove, some sang while others listened to Arabic songs from FM stations.

Samah Algosaibi, who drove out of her house in Khobar, told local media that the kingdom is witnessing history in the making.

Saudi women got the right to drive after Crown Prince Mohammed Salman issued the royal decree on September 26, 2017, to lift the driving ban on women.

Businesswoman Hind Alzahid said this is the moment for all Saudi women as she sat behind the wheel of change.

Alzahid said she is grateful for the women’s empowerment movement taking place now.

Lina Almaeena, a member of the Saudi Shoura Council, said she felt liberated as she drove her mother’s Lexus through the streets of Riyadh.

Sarah Alwassia, a Jeddah-based woman who got her driving licence from the US, told Arab News that she is thrilled that she could finally drive in her own home town. Now she can drive her children to school and pick them up, Alwassia said.

Sahar Nasief, a retired lecturer, said she does not have to live at the mercy of her driver or male relatives anymore.

Talk show host and writer Samar Almogren told AFP that she feels like a bird as she drove through the streets of Riyadh.

Social media was flooded with videos of women’s maiden car rides. Policemen distributed roses to first-time drivers.

Reforms lose some sheen

 While Prince Salman is receiving plaudits for lifting the ban on driving for women, his reforms have lost some sheen after reports of a major crackdown on activists campaigning for women’s right to drive.

The authorities say nine of the 17 activists arrested are still in jail.

Human Rights Watch said last week that the kingdom has arrested two more female activists. Many others have been barred from travelling outside the kingdom.

Among those behind bars is Loujain al-Hathloul who was earlier held in 2014 for attempting to drive from United Arab Emirates to Saudi Arabia.

To please the authorities, state-backed newspapers even published front-page pictures of some of the activists with the word ‘traitor’ stamped across them.

By jailing women driving activists, Riyadh wants to tell people that only the crown prince is the harbinger of change and reforms can never be won through activism.