'I feel free like a bird': Saudi women celebrate as driving ban lifted
Sunday - 24/06/2018 13:25
Celebrations in major cities as clock passes midnight in carefully stage-managed event
Police officers gave them flowers, fathers gave their blessing and locals marked the moment with humour as Saudi women took to the streets in their cars after the ban on driving was lifted.
As the clock ticked past midnight on Saturday, a group of women who had been granted licences started their engines, some with fathers or brothers alongside, and others in new cars bought for the occasion. Several women shouted with delight. Others cried, and many more took videos of their first forays at the wheel.
The celebratory mood was mostly confined to pockets of Riyadh and Saudi Arabia’s second city, Jeddah, where the few women who have so far been granted licences were being feted as celebrities. Among them was Fadya Basma, a driver for a ride-sharing company, who is one of the first in Saudi Arabia to legally shepherd men around. “It’s a wonderful day,” she said. “And it will change things. Saudi will never be the same again.”
Samar Almogren, a talkshow host and writer, said: “I always knew this day would come. But it came fast. Sudden. I feel free like a bird.”
Saudi luminaries were quick to herald the moment. Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, one of the kingdom’s wealthiest men, posted a video at 12.01am local time (10.01pm BST) of himself with his daughter Rim at the wheel. “Mummy is not driving a buggy, but a real car,” he said. “Saudi Arabia has finally entered the 21st century.”
Slogans and messages of support were shared on social media. “Today, you take on the streets, tomorrow, Mars,” said one. “This day will be marked in history,” said another. “Drive – we are with you.”
Aware of the potential for the lifting of the ban to shift views about the rigidly conservative state, much of the lead-up has been heavily stage-managed, with lucrative consultancies offered to craft a message of a grateful people offering thanks to Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
Aseel al-Hamad, a Saudi racing driver, had never driven on her home track before Sunday, despite being a board member of the country’s motoring foundation. Her debut was promoted by a public relations company, which released a statement in her name.
“I’ve always loved car toys,” it said. “I had the privilege of driving race cars all over the world, but today will be the first in my beloved country. Driving the Jaguar F1 today was so emotional, it’s a very special moment.”
Photographs of police officers handing out flowers to female drivers were also carefully choreographed, but across the country, finding a woman behind the wheel during daylight hours was a difficult task. So far, the number of licences handed out has not been publicised. In Jeddah, about 30 women can legally drive. Many thousands more have applied.
Nevertheless, support for the move and a belief that the small advance guard of drivers would soon lead to an influx appeared to be widespread and spontaneous. Ahd Niazy, a writer, said: “This means the world to me, and to the country. This generation changes things.”
Women with international driving licences are thought to be given priority in being approved to drive, along with those deemed not to be involved in activism or seen as unlikely to pose a political risk.
Nour, 24, speaking from a coffee shop in Jeddah’s corniche, said: “All I want to do is take to the roads. As soon as I can, I will. This is a great achievement for all women and it is definitely the key to bigger changes.”
Saudi drivers from ride-sharing companies such as Uber seemed to be less convinced. “I don’t support women driving because I believe they are not the best drivers,” said one. Asked whether his three sisters would soon follow their compatriots’ lead, he said: “I’m not going to allow them and they did not even ask. They have a driver who can take care of everything.”
Any resistance to the move in Saudi Arabia’s deeply conservative society is difficult to gauge. A crackdown on dissent over recent months has left many reluctant to express opinions, especially if they are at odds with official views. Fatima, speaking at a mall in Jeddah, said: “This is not the time to be defying anyone. What I think is not important.”
State media was effusively supportive, with government-run titles lauding newfound independence and potential household savings delivered by reducing a demand for foreign drivers.
Al-Mowaten, a news website, said: “Women being allowed to drive is a necessity more than a luxury. Women will rely on themselves when facing emergencies and difficult circumstances in which they will need to drive and act quickly, especially if a husband or other family member is suddenly stricken with an illness.”