Saudi women take the wheel after the driving ban is lifted



BURAIDAH, Saudi Arabia: The lifting of the ban on female driving marked an extraordinary moment for this kingdom and showed how social reviews filtered even in the most conservative pockets here while Saudi women press for change.

In the desert region of Qbadim, the center of the austere interpretation of Islam practiced in the nation,

Aljohara al-Wabli

He slid into the driver's seat of his son's Toyota FJ Cruiser and, in the early hours of Sunday morning, delivered a prayer and drove to the roads of the capital, Buraidah.

Recorded the momentous 30-minute event with a Snapchat video.

Mrs. al-Wabli is one of the many women in Saudi Arabia who took a festive turn after the ban was lifted on Sunday.

In Riyadh and Jeddah, Saudi women drove through busy commercial streets, while in the eastern province of the kingdom, a large number of women marked the occasion by crossing the border into Bahrain.

The driving ban has been at the heart of the debate over how quickly and to what extent Saudi women can push for greater participation in public life.

Saudi conservatives who favored prohibition argued that abolishing it would give women too much freedom and lead to social decline.

The Liberals wanted the ban lifted, seeing it as a symbol of oppression sanctioned by the status of women.

"It's the last big battle left for the Conservatives to fight," he said.

Ali Shihabi,

director of the Arabia Foundation, a group of experts from Washington close to the Saudi government. The lifting of the ban "sent a message that says: we want to fully integrate women into society."

There are still formidable obstacles to the equality of women in the kingdom. The first is the male guardianship system, according to which women are forced to obtain the permission of a male relative, usually a father or a husband, to travel abroad or marry.

Unlike larger and more cosmopolitan cities such as Riyadh or Jeddah, no one applauded while Mrs. Al-Wabli pbaded by. The traffic police did not give him flowers, as they did in other places. He did not find other women drivers.

But on the main boulevard in Buraidah, shrouded in festive lights for the recently completed Islamic holy month of Ramadan, Mrs. Al-Wabli said she could see a brighter path for women in her country.

"The road is lit for Ramadan, but I would like to think it is illuminated for us," said Ms. Al-Wabli, a 54-year-old former school principal, as a traditional Saudi musician. criticized from your phone. "Driving is our right".

The monarchy, united by its alliance with Saudi Arabia's powerful religious establishment, initially resisted calls to lift what, until Sunday, was the only ban on female driving in the world.

That changed under the leadership of the Crown Prince

Mohammed bin Salman,

who set out to remake the kingdom by relaxing its strict social rules and opening its oil-dependent economy.

Many of the kingdom's leading clerics, who consider obedience to the ruler as a religious obligation, have expressed their willingness to go along with the government's liberalization program.

"My daughters and granddaughters will learn to drive," said a cleric, Sheikh

Adel Kalbani,

he said on Sunday on Saudi state television.

But after decades of labeling female driving as sinful, many still suspect the practice, particularly in conservative places like Qbadim.

"Some women have very scattered brains and do not just go out and do an errand," he said.

Naif al-Harbi,

a 23-year-old incense seller at an exclusive mall in Buraidah. "They will get distracted and end up roaming the shops and cafes, and this is potentially very dangerous, she could meet some men and be attracted to behaving immorally."

In the years since Prince Mohammed ascended to power with his father's ascension to the throne in early 2015, the Saudi government has limited the influence of the once powerful religious conservatives. , for example, to deprive the religious police of their power of arrest. The first cinemas in more than three decades have opened and the music, widely considered sinful, is regularly played at government sponsored events.

But it has also repressed the activists and intellectuals who campaigned for the right of women to drive. Of the 19 people who were arrested in the last two months, 10 remain in jail, a measure that seems destined to show that the change can only come from above.

In Qbadim, a region that has produced generations of Salafist clerical lineage, the change is happening more slowly. There are no movies or pop concerts, and residents expect very few women to drive, at least for a while. Women wear strict black, and almost all wear veils that cover the face, known as niqabs.

A religious policeman who was roaming the market area of ​​Buraidah saw two women without the niqab on Sunday. "You have to cover your face," he instructed. "One of the fundamental principles of this country is that women must follow the rules, and more importantly, it is a fundamental principle of our religion."

But even there attitudes are beginning to change.

"With the opening of employment opportunities for women in many fields, society has opened up a bit," he said.

Wasima Rashidi,

a 38-year-old woman who works in a shopping center in Qbadim.

Even a place like Qbadim, he added, "has become a little more tolerant." He wants to drive, but he will wait to see how the people of Qbadim respond to the change before applying for a permit.

Since the government announced plans in September to end the driving ban, 120,000 women signed up for lessons at the six women's driving schools that have been opened in the country so far, a spokesperson said on Sunday. Ministry of the Interior of Saudi Arabia.

A management school for women in Qbadim will soon be opened.

"Every time the change comes to the kingdom, Qbadim is the last place to accept it," he said.

Ibrahim Mohammed,

37, who runs a jewelry store in the center of Buraidah, the capital of Qbadim. "Most people here are opposed to women driving, it will take some time, but eventually it will be accepted."

Write to Margherita Stancati at [email protected]

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