Thursday 19 October 2017

'Rain begins with a single drop': Saudi women driving change

A Saudi woman drives her car along a street in the Saudi coastal city of Jeddah, yesterday. Photo: Getty Images
A Saudi woman drives her car along a street in the Saudi coastal city of Jeddah, yesterday. Photo: Getty Images

Stephen Kalin and Katie Paul Riyadh

Saudi Arabian women rejoiced at their new freedom to drive yesterday, with some taking to the roads even though licences will not be issued for nine months.

Hundreds of others chatted with hiring managers at a Riyadh job fair, factoring in the new element in their career plans: their ability to drive themselves to work.

"Saudi Arabia will never be the same again. The rain begins with a single drop," Manal al-Sharif, who was arrested in 2011 after a driving protest, said in an online statement.

King Salman announced the historic change on Tuesday, ending a conservative tradition which limited women's mobility and was seen by rights activists as an emblem of their suppression.

Saudi Arabia was the only remaining country in the world to bar women from driving.

At the jobs fair, Sultana (30) said she had received four job offers since graduating from law school two years ago but turned them down because of transport issues.

"My parents don't allow me to use Uber or Careem, so one of my brothers or the driver would need to take me," she said, referring to dial-a ride companies. "I'm so excited to learn how to drive. This will be a big difference for me. I will be independent. I won't need a driver. I can do everything myself."

Internet videos showed a handful of women driving cars overnight, even though the ban has not been officially lifted.

The move represents a big crack in the laws and social mores governing women in the conservative Muslim kingdom. The guardianship system requires women to have a male relative's approval for most decisions on education, employment, marriage, travel plans and even medical treatment.

The new initiative recalls previous modernising milestones that unnerved conservatives at first but were eventually accepted, such as the start of state education for girls and the introduction of television in the 1960s.

The decree is expected to boost the fortunes of 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has ascended to the heights of power in the kingdom with an ambitious domestic reform programme and assertive foreign policy.

A muted response from Saudi's clergy, which has long backed the ban, suggested power shared between the Al Saud dynasty and the Wahhabi religious establishment could be shifting decisively in favour of the royals.

Many younger Saudis regard Prince Mohammed's ascent as evidence their generation is taking a central place in running a country whose patriarchal traditions have for decades made power the province of the old and blocked women's progress.

A driving instructor at a government-run centre said women called all day to enquire about registering a licence.

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