Saudi women drove to work and ran errands yesterday, relishing the freedom to move about without relying on men after the kingdom lifted the world’s last remaining ban on women driving.
The move is a historic moment for women who have been at the mercy of their husbands, fathers, brothers and drivers to get around. The ban had relegated women to the backseat, restricting when they could meet friends, where they could spend their time and how they could plan their days.
“It feels beautiful. It was a dream for us so when it happens in reality, I am between belief and disbelief – between a feeling of joy and astonishment,” said Mabkhoutah al-Mari as she pulled up to order a drive-through coffee on her way to work.
The 27-year-old mother of two is a driving instructor for women and already had a driver’s licence from the US, where she spent time in Tennessee studying.
For most of her life she relied on drivers hired by her family, and she and her sisters had to coordinate drop-offs and pick-ups, but yesterday she drove freely in her hometown of Riyadh for the first time.
Some women did not wait until the morning to drive, taking to their cars at the stroke of midnight and steering their way through the capital’s still busy streets.
“I’m speechless. I’m so excited it’s actually happening,” said Hessah al-Ajaji, who drove her family’s Lexus in Riyadh after midnight.
Al-Ajaji had a US driver’s licence before obtaining a Saudi one and appeared comfortable at the wheel. As for the male drivers on the road, “they were really supportive and cheering and smiling”, she said.
For nearly three decades, outspoken Saudi women and men had called for women to have the right to drive as a symbol of other changes they said were needed in the deeply conservative kingdom.
There was never explicitly a law against women driving in Saudi Arabia but a ban was enforced by police and licences were not issued to women. The ban had been a stain on the country’s reputation and hindered women’s ability to contribute to the economy.
In 1990, during the first driving campaign by activists, women who drove in Riyadh lost their jobs and were barred from travelling abroad.
Ultraconservatives in Saudi Arabia had long warned that allowing women to drive would lead to sin and expose women to harassment.
Three of the women who had taken part in that 1990 protest and several others were arrested last month, just weeks before the kingdom lifted its ban.
Three of those still detained – Aziza al-Yousef, Loujain al-Hathloul and Eman al-Nafjan- are seen as icons of the women’s rights movement in Saudi Arabia.