Sunday, June 24, 2018

'Everything is an adventure now': Saudi women celebrate new driving freedoms as ban is lifted

Fadya Fahad, one of the first female taxi drivers in Saudi Arabia, next to her rented car yesterday in the Red Sea city of Jeddah. 

“I feel so free. I feel like I can do anything,” Bayan al Soumady says over the phone from Riyadh. The excitement in her voice is infectious. “I drove myself to work today. Maybe it’s just a little thing, but everything feels like an adventure now.”

The 24-year-old pharmacist is one of thousands of women across Saudi Arabia who took to the road for the first time on Sunday after the kingdom abolished its long-standing ban on women driving 

As the clock struck midnight, in a show of solidarity and celebration, women did victory laps around the centres of Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam, trailed by Saudi television crews and the rest of the world’s media.

Saudi Arabia women’s driving ban lifted: With excitement and apprehension, Saudi women gear up for first day on the road.

Throughout Sunday – the first day of the Saudi working week – women who had already managed to convert their foreign driving licences stepped into newly purchased cars, or borrowed those belonging to fathers and husbands, to commute to work and run errands alone. Some headed out of the cities on the long, straight desert roads to drive fast for the pleasure of it.

“Life can feel very complicated here sometimes,” says Bayan, who is half Syrian and learned to drive while studying in Damascus.

“It’s frustrating not being able to rely on yourself for simple things like going to the supermarket 10 minutes away. I know it doesn’t fix everything – but being able to drive is a big step,” she adds.

The historic moment gives women unprecedented freedom in a country where the male guardianship system effectively renders them second-class citizens, unable to make many important decisions for themselves.

Saudi Arabia’s tiny activist community has fought against the ban since it was enforced by police and licensing agencies in 1990. A surprise royal decree from King Salman last September, however, announced the end of a policy which has been perhaps the foremost symbol of the oppression faced by women in the conservative kingdom. The move, designed to help get more women into the Saudi workforce, is part of a raft of wide-ranging social and economic reforms installed by crown prince Mohammed bin Salman in the year since his appointment.

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