RIYADH (Reuters) – Women from Saudi Arabia took to the streets early on Sunday, announcing the end of the latest worldwide ban on female drivers, which for a long time was considered an emblem of the repression of women in the country. profoundly conservative Muslim kingdom.
"It's a beautiful day," businesswoman Samah al-Qusaibi said as she sailed through the eastern city of Khobar just after midnight with the police watching. "Today we are here," he said from the driver's seat. "Yesterday we sat there," he added, pointing to the back.
The end of the ban, ordered last September by King Salman, is part of radical reforms driven by his powerful son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in an attempt to transform the economy of the world's leading oil exporter and open its society cloister.
"It's our right and we finally take it, it's just a matter of time for society to accept it, in general," said Samira al-Ghamdi, a 47-year-old psychologist from Jeddah, as she drove to work. She was part of a small group of women who had managed to obtain a license in advance.
The lifting of the ban, which for years attracted international condemnation and comparisons with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, was well received by Western allies as evidence of a new progressive trend in Saudi Arabia.
But it has been accompanied by an offensive against dissent, even against some of the activists who previously campaigned against it. Now they sit in jail while their companions take the road legally for the first time.
The number of new drivers is still low, as women with foreign permits only started converting them earlier this month. Others are training in new state schools, and 3 million women are expected to drive by 2020.
Some still face resistance from conservative relatives, and many accustomed to private drivers say they are reluctant to take the roads of the state. country.
"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"
Concerned that women drivers will face abuses in a country where strict rules of segregation generally prevent women from interacting with Unrelated people The men brought about a new law against harassment last month.
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 public safety management reported that there were no unusual incidents one hour after the ban ended.
Amr al-Ardi, a resident of Riyadh, said the women in his family would wait to see how the system works before they start driving.
It is expected that the decision to lift the ban in the kingdom, where banned cinemas and concerts have also returned, will boost the economy, with sectors ranging from car sales to insurance that will reap gains.
Saudi shares rose more than one percent on Sunday and insurers solid earnings, since it is expected that the demand of women will boost the automotive sector.
The change should also save families billions of dollars in drivers while encouraging more women to join the workforce and increase productivity, albeit modestly at first.
Automotive companies produced theatrical advertisements to mark the end of the ban, and private parking garages designated the areas of "ladies" with pink signage.
"Independence Day" read the headline on the kingdom's main English-language newspaper, Arab News. Social networks exploded to a large extent in the celebration, although there were some voices of dissidence and ridicule.
A Twitter user said he would not allow his wife to take the wheel: "If he wants to drive, he can go with his father and God willing, he will drive trucks." Decisions like this depend on personal freedom # She_Won & # 39; t_Drive. "
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 who were once considered dominant.
Activists and diplomats have speculated that the arrest of more than a dozen human rights defenders The women in the last month aimed to appease the conservative elements or send a message to activists who do not push the demands too much.
The Crown Prince's modernization efforts have won praise at home and abroad, but It also sparked concern with an anti-corruption purge last year, when dozens of royalty and senior businessmen They were arrested at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh. Most were released after reaching agreements with the government.
Multimillionaire investor Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, one of the first defenders of the women who drove and who was detained at the Ritz for three months, tweeted a video of his daughter driving.
"Saudi Arabia has just entered the 21st century," he told his granddaughters in the back seat of the video. "Thank you to King Salman for this achievement."
Even with the end of the driving ban, Saudi Arabia remains one of the most restrictive countries for women, who need permission from male guardians by legal mandate for important decisions, such as overseas travel and marriage.
Amnesty International said lifting the ban was "a small step in the right direction," but called for an end to other practices that discriminate against women.
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-class 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.
"The worst of all will be if these small-scale reforms, and the silencing of feminists, slow down the push to pressure the Saudi regime to make more significant changes," he wrote in a US newspaper. UU
Additional reports by Marwa Rashad and Reuters TV; Edition of Ros Russell and Leslie Adler