Saudi women are now driving as longstanding ban ends

Saudi women are now driving as longstanding ban ends

Even as the kingdom ends the legal ban on Sunday, Shahd's conundrum shows how daunting it will be for many Saudi women to suddenly transcend ingrained traditions that have limited their freedom during decades of state-imposed patriarchy.

Saudi Arabian women celebrated being able to drive for the first time in decades Sunday, as the kingdom overturned the world's only ban on female motorists, a historic reform expected to usher in a new era of social mobility.

The end of the controversial ban brings the ultra-conservative Gulf nation into line with the rest of the world.

The step will free many women from the constraints of needing to use public transportation or hire a male driver to travel even small distances, allowing many more to join the workforce.

Euphoria was mixed with disbelief as women across the kingdom flooded social media with photos and videos of their maiden auto rides, with a heavy police presence in major cities.

The reforms are spearheaded by Saudi Arabia's 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is being viewed as a promoter of human rights and women empowerment.

When the decision to lift the ban was announced last September, many women reacted with joy, hailing the new capacity it would give them to work, grow their own businesses and explore the kingdom - although many other restrictions on women's everyday lives remain in place. She called on all women to learn how to drive and teach their daughters instead of listening to negative thoughts about driving or spreading them.

One businesswoman said "It's our moment" in an Arab News tweet.

Last year, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud issued a decree stating that the monarchy would start issuing driving licences for women. "Driving is important for every woman who seeks independence", she said.

They were branded threats to national security and accused of being foreign agents.

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Three of the women still detained- Aziza al-Yousef, Loujain al-Hathloul and Eman al-Nafjan- are seen as icons of a larger democratic and civil rights push in the kingdom. "Activists have reported that people are afraid to speak out", said Samah Hadid, Amnesty International's Middle East Campaigns Director.

On social media, women across the country posted pictures of themselves in the driving seat of their new cars.

But she told CNN last month she had canceled the upcoming trip out of fear for her safety. Kaki got her license when she was 18 years old from Egypt and got another one from Jordan five years ago. "Character assassination. We are seeing that same pattern again now".

While some quietly oppose the decision, there are men who are openly embracing the greater rights being granted to Saudi women.

But it has been accompanied by a crackdown on dissent, including against some of the very activists who previously campaigned against the ban.

For decades, hardliners cited austere Islamic interpretations to justify the driving ban, with some asserting that women lack the intelligence to drive and that lifting the prohibition would promote promiscuity.

"It looks like the only reform they want is the one that comes from above and any sort of calls for changes, no matter how positive they are and will benefit the country, will not be tolerated from below", said Kareem Chehayeb, a researcher at Amnesty International.

In 2007, activists submitted a petition to the then-King Abdullah, asking for the right to drive.

Human Rights Watch this week said the kingdom has arrested two more women activists - Nouf Abdelaziz and Mayaa al-Zahrani, in what it denounced asan "unrelenting crackdown". It also places women at the center of a tug-of-war between those agitating for more openings and a religious majority that remains wary of changes that could be influenced by the West.

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