RIYADH (Reuters) – Women will hit the roads in Saudi Arabia on Sunday with the lifting of the latest global ban on female drivers, long considered an emblem of the repression of women in the conservative kingdom.
The measure, ordered last September by King Salman, is part of radical reforms driven by his powerful son Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who seeks to transform the economy of the world's leading oil exporter and opens its cloistered society
"We are ready, and will totally change our lives," said Samira al-Ghamdi, a 47-year-old psychologist from Jeddah, one of the first Saudi women in receiving a driver's license.
The lifting of the ban, which for years has attracted international condemnation and comparisons with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, has been well received by Western allies as evidence of a new progressive trend in Saudi Arabia.
But it has been accompanied by a harsh crackdown on dissent, even against some of the activists who previously campaigned against the ban. They will sit in jail while their companions take the road legally for the first time.
Saudi women with foreign licenses only started converting them earlier this month, so the number of new drivers is expected to remain low at the beginning. It will be some time before others who learn to drive in the new state schools are prepared for the road.
And some women still face resistance from conservative relatives. Many accustomed to using a private driver say they are reluctant to take the busy roads of the Muslim kingdom.
"I definitely would not like to drive," said Fayza al-Shammary, a 22-year-old saleswoman. "I like to be a princess with someone opening the door of the car and taking me anywhere".
Concerns that female drivers are abused in a country where strict segregation rules generally prevent women from interacting with unrelated men led to a new law last month with jail and heavy fines for badual harbadment .
The Ministry of the Interior plans to hire female traffic policemen for the first time, but it is not clear when they will be deployed.
The decision to lift the ban in the heavily controlled Muslim kingdom, where forbidden cinemas and concerts have also returned, is expected to boost the economy, with industries ranging from car sales to insurance for harvest the benefits. .
It should also encourage more women to enter the workforce and increase productivity, albeit modestly at first.
Automotive companies have seized the moment with theatrical announcements that mark the end of the ban, and private parking garages designated as "ladies" areas with pink signage.
Social networks also celebrate with tweets like #You_Will_Drive_and_the_People_Are_With_You. Some reactions have been more mocking or have expressed concern about social impacts.
Much of the kingdom's largely young population supports Prince Mohammed's reforms, but many Saudis fear that their speed may provoke a backlash from religious conservatives once considered dominant.
Activists and diplomats have speculated that the arrest of more than a dozen women's rights advocates in the past month was aimed at appeasing conservative elements or sending a message to activists not to put too much pressure on demands .
The modernization efforts of the crown prince have won praise at home and abroad, but also sparked concern with an anti-corruption purge last year, when dozens of royals and high-ranking businessmen were arrested at the Ritz Hotel. Carlton in Riyadh. Most were released after reaching agreements with the government.
Even with the end of the driving ban, Saudi Arabia remains one of the most restrictive countries for women, who need the permission of male guardians by legal mandate for important decisions, such as travel abroad and marriage.
Activists have already begun campaigning to end the guardianship system, which has been slowly disappearing over the years. Prince Mohammed said in an interview earlier this year that he believes men and women are equal.
But veteran Saudi activist Hala Aldosari says that women remain second-clbad citizens and criticized the Crown Prince's "fragmentary approach" for serving the interests of the elite at the expense of women from more restrictive families.
"Worst of all, it will be if these small-scale reforms and the silencing of feminists hold back the momentum to pressure the Saudi regime to make more significant changes," he wrote in a US newspaper this week. UU
Additional reports by Marwa Rashad, Sarah Dadouch and Reuters TV; Ros Russell edition