Saudi Arabia

Ten Saudi women receive driving licences amid a crackdown against activists

Ahead of the end of Saudi Arabia’s ban on women driving on June 24, the government issues its first licences, even as it keeps activists under arrest

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 05 June, 2018, 5:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 June, 2018, 5:19am

Saudi Arabia issued the first driving licences to 10 Saudi women on Monday as the kingdom prepares to lift the world’s only ban on women driving, but the surprise move came as a number of women who had campaigned for the right to drive remained under arrest and facing charges.

A government statement said the 10 women who were issued licences already held driving licences from other countries, including the US, Britain, Lebanon and Canada. They each took a brief driving test and eye exam before being issued the licences at the General Department of Traffic in the capital, Riyadh. International media were not present for the event.

Saudi Arabia plans to end its ban on women driving on June 24, and women across the country have been preparing by taking driving courses on female-only college campuses. Some are even training to become drivers for ride-hailing companies like Uber.

Saudi women had long complained of having to hire costly male drivers, use taxis or rely on male relatives to get to work and run errands.

The move to issue some women licences early comes as four Saudi women’s rights activists who had campaigned for the right to drive remain under arrest, facing possible trial. Saudi Arabia’s prosecutor said on Sunday that in all, 17 people had been detained in recent weeks on suspicion of trying to undermine security and stability, a case that activists said targeted prominent campaigners for women’s rights.

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The prosecutor’s statement said that eight had been temporarily released, while five men and four women remained under arrest. Among the women held since May 15 are Loujain al-Hathloul, Aziza al-Yousef and Eman al-Nafjan, according to people with knowledge of the arrests who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions.

The three are among the most outspoken and well-known women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia. They not only risked arrest by pushing for the right to drive for years, but also called for an end to guardianship laws that give male relatives final say over a woman marrying or travelling abroad.

Their activism was seen as part of a larger democratic and civil rights push in the kingdom.

They now face a range of charges, including communicating with people and organisations hostile to the kingdom and providing financial and moral support to hostile elements abroad.

State-linked media have referred to the group as “foreign embassy agents” and branded them traitors.

Three other well-known women’s rights activists were briefly detained at the onset of the sweep. They were long-time advocates of women’s rights who took part in the first protest in 1990 against the kingdom’s ban on women driving.

Nearly 50 women took part in that first driving protest some 28 years ago. The women were arrested, lost their jobs, had their passports confiscated for a year and faced severe stigmatisation.

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Others were detained over the years during various efforts by women’s rights activists to drive. While Saudi law has never explicitly banned women from driving, women were not issued driving licences. Often, police would detain a female driver until a male relative could pick her up and sign a pledge on her behalf that she would not drive again.

Ultraconservatives viewed women driving as immoral and warned women would be subject to sexual harassment if they drove. Just four years ago, the country’s top cleric, Grand Mufti Abdulaziz Al Sheikh, said that barring women from driving “was in the best interest of society” because it protected them from having to deal with an accident.

But the kingdom faces steep economic challenges as well as a burgeoning young population that, with access to the world through the internet, sees women in neighbouring Muslim countries driving freely.

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To boost the economy and ease international criticism, Saudi Arabia’s 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has been promoting changes, like the decision to allow women to drive, all while risking backlash from clerics and others who adhere to the ultraconservative Wahhabi interpretation of Islam.

The prince has also tried to appeal to young Saudis by opening the country to more entertainment, allowing music concerts and opening the first commercial movie theater to Saudi Arabia this year.

However, rights groups say that the arrest of activists by the crown prince’s security forces are a bid to silence dissent as women prepare to drive for the first time, and may be a way to freeze any calls for greater reforms.

The spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Liz Throssell, has described the crackdown as “perplexing.”

“If, as it appears, their detention is related solely to their work as human rights defenders and activists on women’s issues, they should be released immediately,” she said.