Sunday 23 September 2018

Male drivers 'supportive and cheering' as women take to the roads for the first time in Saudi Arabia

Zuhoor Assiri drives her car in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, June 24, 2018. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed
Zuhoor Assiri drives her car in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, June 24, 2018. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed
Saudi women celebrate after they drove their cars in Al Khobar, Saudi Arabia, June 24, 2018. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed
Zuhoor Assiri drives her car in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, June 24, 2018. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed
Zuhoor Assiri gestures as she drives her car in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, June 24, 2018. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed
Samira al-Ghamdi, a practicing psychologist, reacts as she drives to work in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia June 24, 2018. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

Aya Batrawy

Saudi women are in the driver's seat for the first time in their country after the world's last remaining ban on women driving was lifted.

It is a historic moment for women who have had to rely on their husbands, fathers, brothers and drivers to run basic errands, get to work, visit friends or even drop children off at school.

The ban had relegated women to the backseat, restricting when and how they move around.

But after midnight on Sunday, Saudi women finally joined women around the world in being able to get behind the wheel of a car and simply drive.

Saudi women celebrate after they drove their cars in Al Khobar, Saudi Arabia, June 24, 2018. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed
Saudi women celebrate after they drove their cars in Al Khobar, Saudi Arabia, June 24, 2018. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed

"I'm speechless. I'm so excited it's actually happening," said Hessah al-Ajaji, who drove her family's Lexus down the capital Riyadh's busy Tahlia Street after midnight.

Ms Al-Ajaji had a US driver's licence before obtaining a Saudi one and appeared comfortable at the wheel as she pulled up and parked.

Samira al-Ghamdi, a practicing psychologist, reacts as she drives to work in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia June 24, 2018. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra
Samira al-Ghamdi, a practicing psychologist, reacts as she drives to work in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia June 24, 2018. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

As for the male drivers on the road, "they were really supportive and cheering and smiling," she said.

In a few hours, she says she will drive herself to work for the first time in Saudi Arabia.

For nearly three decades, outspoken Saudi women and the men who supported them had called for women to have the right to drive.

They faced arrest for defying the ban as women in other Muslim countries drove freely.

Zuhoor Assiri gestures as she drives her car in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, June 24, 2018. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed
Zuhoor Assiri gestures as she drives her car in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, June 24, 2018. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed

In 1990, during the first driving campaign by activists, women who got behind the wheels of their cars in the capital, Riyadh, lost their jobs, faced severe stigmatisation and were barred from travel abroad for a year.

Ultraconservatives in Saudi Arabia had long warned that allowing women to drive would lead to sin and expose women to harassment.

Ahead of allowing women to drive, the kingdom passed a law against sexual harassment with up to five years in prison for the most severe cases.

Criticism against women driving has largely been muted since since King Salman announced last year that they would be allowed to drive.

With state-backed support for the move, many Saudis now say they support the decision allowing women to drive and see it as long overdue.

Not all women are driving at once, though. The overwhelming majority of women in Saudi Arabia still do not have licences.

Many have not had a chance to take the gender-segregated driving courses that were first offered to women only three months ago.

There is also a waiting list of several months for the classes on offer in major cities.

Press Association

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