Saudi women celebrate new life behind the wheel

Activists hope that Riyadh will take greater strides to protect the rights of women.

Majdooleen, who is among the first Saudi women allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, drives her car in her neighborhood in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia June 24, 2018.  (photo credit: REUTERS/SARAH DADOUCH)
Majdooleen, who is among the first Saudi women allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, drives her car in her neighborhood in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia June 24, 2018.
Women can now officially get behind the wheel in Saudi Arabia, as the country lifted its ban against women drivers on Sunday, a prohibition that had long been ridiculed as a cornerstone of women’s repression in the staunchly conservative Muslim kingdom.
In fact, the ban—which had been harshly critiqued and compared to the Taliban’s repressive rules—was the world’s last remaining one on female drivers. Western leaders applauded the change of policy as a sign that Saudi Arabia is heading in a more socially progressive direction.
The move is part of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s sweeping reform program to modernize the country’s petrol-dependent economy. It will also provide a much-need boost to the automotive sector—from sales and repair to insurance providers. The change of policy is also expected to save families money otherwise spent on private chauffeurs.
Along with the driving ban, bin Salman also lifted strictures on women attending cinemas and gender-segregated concerts. Such moves are part of his public vow to encourage a moderate form in Islam in the kingdom.
Yet many believe a conservative backlash is in the making. The country certainly has its share of ultra-conservatives who believe that a more prominent public role for women would spark promiscuity and sinful behavior. Saudi society has long been dominated by Wahhabism, a literalist strain of Islam that seeks to return to the original practices of early Muslims. 
Despite granting more “privileges” to women, the country remains one of the most repressive societies for women. Females still require permission from male guardians to travel abroad and marry. Amnesty International, which praised the new driving policy, also said it was merely “a small step in the right direction.”
This explains why the new policy coincided with a crackdown on female activists. Over 17 of them are sitting in Saudi prisons on charges of undermining security and aiding enemies of the state. Many observers believe that the crackdown served to appease conservatives by sending a strong message to those who might push for more progressive
Sulaiman al-Oqiley, a Saudi political analyst, told The Media Line that many in the country are pleased with the decision even if it came late. “This step was late because of the politicization of the issue and the interference of the religious establishment,” he said.
“Bin Salman was brave enough to make this decision and begin the much-needed reform of Saudi society,” he added. “I believe that the Saudi street will accept this new reality, and I don’t think there will be issues or complications arising from the decision.”
Al-Oqiley further explained that many within Saudi society have waited patiently for this decision, which he believes will pave the way for more opportunities for women. “What Saudis have achieved thus far will provide a further reforming push in terms of economic and other social issues.”
Samar al-Muqaren, a Saudi writer and activist, stressed to The Media Line that many women have been fighting extremism for a long time and are elated now that some additional freedoms are forthcoming. “I feel like a bird. When I first left my house in the morning, I wore a white Abaya [Islamic dress] and Hijab to express my happiness.
“Before the new changes, people considered me an oddball. I took off my niqab a long time ago. When I first decided to show my face on television, it did not go down well,” she said.
“My father is my support system; he has always supported me in all of my life decisions," al-Muqaren asserted. "He's the one who encouraged me to study abroad. I have an international driver's license so that I can drive abroad, but driving here in my own country is a totally different experience.
“The main thing is that Saudi women won their right to drive and it’s only the beginning.”