Saudi Arabia lifts ban on women drivers

Thousands of women celebrate historic moment that gives them freedom on the road, we report from Jeddah

A Saudi woman and her friends celebrate her first time driving on a main street of Khobar City on her way to Kingdom of Bahrain on June 24, 2018. Saudi Arabia will allow women to drive from June 24, ending the world's only ban on female motorists, a historic reform marred by what rights groups call an expanding crackdown on activists. The move, which follows a sweeping crackdown on women activists who long opposed the ban, is part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's wide-ranging reform drive to modernise the conservative petrostate.

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Most had no destination in mind, but as the clock struck midnight, Saudi Arabian women took to the road, behind the wheel, for the first time in their lives – because they could.

"It's so bizarre. It's so exciting," said Rozana Al Banawi, steering her Honda Odyssey in Jeddah early on Sunday. Overwhelmed by what had become an emotional occasion, she took a deep breath, exhaled, whispered a quick prayer, then said: "I know these roads so well, and now I can finally take a right."

The mother of three is a leadership coach, but throughout her life she has had to depend on the goodwill of the men of her family or a hired driver to travel or commute.

"I can't believe it, but it's sinking in," she said.

To her, the drive was short but it did not matter, now that she had a lifetime of driving ahead of her.

Saudi driver Rozana Al Banawi, a leadership coach, takes to the road in Jeddah on June 24. Naser Al Wasmi / The National
Saudi driver Rozana Al Banawi, a leadership coach, takes to the road in Jeddah on June 24. Naser Al Wasmi / The National

Many decided not to wait until daylight, opting to drive as soon as the law allowed. Ultraconservatives have long warned that allowing women to drive would lead to sin and expose women to harassment, but before lifting the driving ban, the kingdom passed a law against sexual harassment with up to five years in prison.

A reminder of that law was published again before women started driving in haste. The lifting of the ban won't only give them an open road, but also flexibility.

For Dr Nada Farsi, being a professor at King Abdulaziz University while raising two children means there is a need to time almost everything to the minute to ensure she can manage her day.

"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," she said.

Having lived in Canada for seven years, she has juggled work and motherhood before.

But it was simple daily errands or visits – even to see her grandmother, who lives 10 minutes away by car – that were much more difficult because she was unable to drive in Saudi Arabia.

"Before, we would have to wait for the Uber driver, if it was too hot to walk, or the driver to come pick us up. It could take up to an hour from the decision to go, but now that 10-minute drive is exactly that: a 10-minute drive," she said, driving her two children, niece and nephew.

Basma, her 8-year-old niece, giddy in the back of the family car, looked at her aunt in awe.

"I can't believe it," she said, kicking excitedly in her seat. "I can't wait to drive."

The euphoria was not confined to youngsters, but was being felt across the city by all women who got behind the wheel.

The decision to allow Saudi women to drive comes as part of a series of reforms implemented by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has pushed for transformation of the kingdom's economy since he assumed the role of heir apparent last year.


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So momentous was the end of the driving ban that it led many women to reschedule their time off.

Many decided to delay travel during the Eid holiday, which gave public-sector employees up to two weeks off beginning June 14, to take part in the watershed moment.

"We were planning on travelling, you know it's Eid, but because of this historic day, we're delaying our flights by a week," said Dalal Al Malloh, from Riyadh.

She said the move to allow women to drive will have a transformative effect on society, allowing families to save time that would otherwise been wasted on organising transport.

"Lower-income families will be so happy, thank God. I will support them because I've seen how much they've suffered because they don't have a driver, now their lives will begin to flourish," she said.

Dr Samira al-Ghamdi, a practicing psychologist, drives her car out in her neighborhood while going to work, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia June 24, 2018.  REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Dr Samira Al Ghamdi, a psychologist, drives her car to work in Jeddah on June 24. Reuters

According to sources in the ministry of information, more than 10,000 women applied to learn to drive in Jeddah. Among them is Abrar Nooh, who was waiting at the Jeddah Advanced Driving School on Sunday to complete the last six hours of her training.

Asked where she would go first after getting her licence, she paused, then said: "Anywhere, but with my mom."

As the youngest in a family of boys, she said she also looked forward to driving her brothers around. "I think they'll be shocked to see their younger sister drive, but I'll make sure they see how confident I am."

But getting a licence means more to her than just impressing family members. Along with helping to out at home, she wants to build a career on training other women.

"The moment they opened up the doors for registration, I went straight to apply. I want to work in this centre and help others achieve this dream," the recent graduate said.

Employment opportunities are likely to improve for women across all sectors.

Asking if a woman had a driver was a common question in many job interviews, with companies fearing a lack of punctuality from those who did not have stable transport arrangements.

Drivers, aside from being expensive, were a necessary burden for some – requiring a leap of faith for many to entrust an employee with their lives and those of their children.

"I was blessed, my driver has been with us for 37 years and he's been great," said Layla Moussa, a Saudi fashion designer. "But some have to depend on a complete stranger, either a personal driver or a car for hire, with the things that are most precious for us: our children."

She said that aside from giving Saudi families greater control of their lives, not being able to drive was infringing on the privacy of women across the kingdom.

"If you want to misbehave, or whatever, you can do it even with a driver driving you. Teenagers around the world misbehave even before they can drive," she said. "This is not a form of control that makes sense."

However, despite the benefit in terms of practicality, she said that not everyone shared her views. Some, including many women she knows, were against the lifting of the ban.

"They oppose any kind of progress, they want to be stuck where they are and we can’t afford that, the world will leave us behind," she said. "We don't deserve to be left behind, because so many Saudis are talented, educated, ambitious and they are ready to take hold of their lives."