Women in Saudi Arabia take to roads at midnight, ushering in end of world’s last ban on female drivers
Saudi Arabia ended its long-standing ban on women driving on Sunday – and the second the clock struck midnight, women across the country started their engines
Every few metres someone – a newlywed couple, a group of young girls with balloons – stops Samar Al-Mogren to cheer her on or flash her a thumbs-up.
It’s midnight in Riyadh, and she is making her way across the city she was born and raised in, finally in the driver’s seat of her own car.
Saudi Arabia’s notorious ban on women driving ended on Sunday. After drinking tea and counting down the minutes, at midnight, Samar – a TV anchor and mother-of-three – went upstairs to kiss her four-year-old son Salloum goodnight.
She then put on a flowing white abaya, strode out of her front door, accompanied by her best friend, and walked towards a white GMC parked outside her house in the Narjiss neighbourhood in northern Riyadh.
Across the street, her neighbour had just arrived home with two bags of groceries. He paused, placed his shopping on the bonnet of his car, and watched her closely.
In her cateye glasses, wedge sandals and nose ring, she did not skip a beat. She smiled, climbed in, started the ignition and pulled out of her parking spot.
“I have goosebumps,” she says as she turns onto the King Fahd highway, the main road in the Saudi capital.
She drives in silence for a few minutes, glancing up at the moon, then adds: “I never in my life imagined I would be driving here. On this road. Driving.”
The question of whether Saudi Arabian society is “ready” for women to drive has been hotly debated in the kingdom.
In 2013, Sheikh Saleh al-Luhaidan, a notable Saudi cleric, announced driving could damage a woman’s ovaries and push the pelvis up, thus leading to birth defects.
Resistance to the end of the driving ban still resonates across some segments of society, with songs titled “You will not drive” and “No woman no drive” popping up on social media in recent weeks.
But as she drives across Riyadh, men and women stopped Samar’s SUV to congratulate her and voice their support.
A group of men in their 20s, waiting for the police assessment of a minor accident, spot Samar driving by. They smile and cheer. The policeman, too, looks up and smiles.
A man in a suit, smoking on a pavement, applauds her loudly. A young couple walking hand in hand – him in a T-shirt and jeans, her in head-to-toe black abaya and niqab – stop to flash her a thumbs-up and a victory sign.
“I’m proud, proud, proud,” says one man driving by the scene. “It feels like a holiday”.
“This is the society they say is not ready for women to drive,” Samar says, visibly moved.
Samar, whose youngest son was born with Down's syndrome, has already decided where she will drive the next day.
“My first trip, tomorrow, is to take Salloumi to my mother’s house,” she says. “And then to take my mother wherever she wants.”
For many, the end of Saudi Arabia’s driving ban for women is a welcome step, but far from enough in a country that still has a guardianship system in 2018.
Under the system, women need the permission of their closest male relative – husband, father, brother or even son – for most facets of life, including travelling, enrolling in school and in certain cases receiving medical attention.
Samar says she is fully aware that her new-found freedom to drive was not the fruit of activists who have long fought Saudi Arabia’s repressive gender policies – some of whom were arrested just this month.
Decades of campaigning by activists failed to achieve what one stroke of the king’s pen ended in a royal decree signed last year.
“This was a political decision,” she says.
But the will for women to drive in Saudi Arabia – like the will to dismantle the guardianship system -goes back nearly two decades.
On November 6, 1990, 47 women drove themselves through the streets of Riyadh in an act of protest against, and in defiance of, the ban, stopping only when they were arrested.
Some lost their jobs. Others lost the support of their families. What was not lost was their cause.
One of the women, Faiza al-Bakr, now works with Samar at the national paper where she runs a twice-weekly column.
“It was them,” Samar says of Bakr and the 46 others.
“They’re the ones who started it all for us. They’re the ones who cut the yellow tape.”
How the reform happened
In September 2017, King Salman issued a decree declaring an end to the decades-long ban from June 2018.
A handful of driving schools for women were subsequently permitted to open in cities such as Riyadh and Jeddah.
Earlier this month, the kingdom began issuing its first driving licences to women in decades, with a handful of women swapping their foreign licences for Saudi ones after undergoing a practical test.
How many women will drive?
Some six million women - or 65 per cent of the female driving-age population - are expected to apply for a licence once the ban is lifted, according to the London-based consulting firm Facts Global Energy.
But such a high number may not be immediately attainable, some analysts say.
Some three million women in Saudi Arabia could receive licences and actively begin driving by 2020, according to consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers.
In addition to cars, women will be allowed to drive motorbikes, vans and trucks.
Women with licences from Gulf countries will be required to convert them to Saudi licences, according to the kingdom’s traffic department.
Those with international driving licences would be able to drive in the kingdom for up to a year, after which they would be required to apply for a Saudi licence, the department said.
Licences to drive private vehicles will be granted at the age of 18, and public transport at 20 -- the same as men.
Crime and punishment
Many women fear they will be easy prey as drivers in a nation where male “guardians” - their fathers, husbands or other relatives - can exercise arbitrary authority to make decisions on their behalf.
In preparation for the lifting of the ban, the government pre-emptively addressed concerns of sexual harassment- with a prison term of up to five years and a maximum penalty of 300,000 riyals (us$80,000).