By Prarthana Mitra
Saudi Arabia has started issuing driving licences for women for the first time in decades, weeks before lifting the longstanding ban on women to drive. Announcement to lift the ban was announced last September, marking a historic step for the middle eastern Gulf state–the only country where women were not allowed to drive prior to the royal order.
#WATCH: A monumental moment in the history of #SaudiArabia – a video capturing the first time a driving license has been issued to a female in #KSA has gone viral (Video: @saudalzmanan) || https://t.co/3jGI1guGrM pic.twitter.com/TKKttnBWvx
— Arab News (@arabnews) June 4, 2018
Here’s what happened
The general traffic directorate on Monday began replacing foreign licences held by Saudi women with new national licences in cities across the country, reported the official Saudi Press agency. The ban on women’s right to drive around the country, which is an offshoot of the Sharia law requiring women to seek male permission for crucial decisions and actions, is supposed to end on June 24.
“The exchange process is taking place on various spots around the kingdom to lay the ground for women sitting behind the wheels on the roads – a turning point set to be actualised on June 24,” SPA said, as more applications are expected to arrive in the coming weeks.
“Expectations are that next week an additional 2,000 women will join the ranks of licensed drivers in the kingdom,” a statement from the Saudi information ministry said.
Two sides of the story
Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman has, of late, been spearheading the liberalisation of the country’s strict and longstanding social restrictions. This has included reining in the religious police, introducing public concerts, lifting bans on cinemas, even organising the country’s first fashion week earlier this summer.
However, the government crackdown on women’s rights activists shows no sign of abatement, with several activists being arrested as recently as last month. Some of them have even been jailed for rigorously campaigning to allow women to drive, while some others have been imprisoned for defying the rule. Loujain al-Hathloul, a vocal activist in this regard, was previously detained in 2014 when she attempted to drive across the border from the United Arab Emirates, besides being branded as threats to national security. According to Al Jazeera, the arrests have cast a doubt over Riyadh’s commitment to effecting modernisation in the country.
For others, however, this is a historic victory in the country which has hitherto refused to recognise or respect women’s freedom of speech and movement. Rema Jawdat, one of the ten women who collected their driving licences this week was quoted as saying by the ministry, “It’s a dream come true that I am about to drive in the kingdom.”
She further added, quite poignantly, “Driving to me represents having a choice – the choice of independent movement. Now we have that option.” This step stands to forecast a future where Saudi women do not have to adhere to dress codes, find their agency questioned at every step, make important life decisions without requiring validation from a male guardian.
Prarthana Mitra is at staff writer at Qrius.
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