On 4th June Monday, Saudi Arabia began issuing its first driving licences to women in decades, authorities said. It was just weeks before the historic lifting of the conservative kingdom’s ban on female motorists.
As Riyadh prepares to end its ban on June 24, ten Saudi women swapped their foreign licences for Saudi ones in multiple cities that also includes the capital Riyadh. The move which follows a government crackdown on women activists is part of a much-publicized liberalization drive launched by powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as he seeks to modernize the metro-state.
The information ministry’s Centre for International Communication (CIC) said, “Ten Saudi women made history on Monday when they were issued driving licences”, showing their felicity. “Expectations are that next week an additional 2,000 women will join the ranks of licensed drivers in the kingdom.”, they added.
The official Saudi Press Agency said the swap came after women applicants were made to undergo a “practical test”, but it did not offer details. As talked to one of the women who received a licence, Ms Rema Jawdat expressed her intense happiness and said, “It’s a dream come true that I am about to drive in the kingdom,” was quoted as saying by the CIC.
“Driving to me represents having a choice – the choice of independent movement. Now we have that option,” added Ms Jawdat, an official at the ministry of economy and planning who has previous driving experience in Lebanon and Switzerland.
Saudi Arabia last week passed a landmark law to criminalise sexual harassment, introducing a prison term of up to five years and a maximum penalty of 300,000 riyals (S$106,905.45), in preparation for the lifting of the ban applied. Till now Saudi Arabia was the only country in the world where women banned from driving, has faced global criticism for what is seen as the oppression of women.
But Prince Mohammed, who recently undertook a global tour aimed at reshaping his kingdom’s austere image, has sought to break with long-held restrictions on women. The self-styled reformer has also ended a decades-long ban on cinemas, allowed mixed-gender concerts and clipped the powers of the long-feared religious police.
But casting a shadow on his reforms, Saudi Arabia last week said it detained 17 people for “undermining” the kingdom’s security, in what campaigners have dubbed a sweeping crackdown against activists. Rights groups have identified many of the detainees as women campaigners for the right to drive and to end the conservative Islamic country’s male guardianship system.
Authorities said eight of the detainees had been “temporarily released” until their investigation is completed. Nine suspects, including four women, remain in custody after they “confessed” to a slew of charges such as suspicious contact with “hostile” organisations and recruiting people in sensitive government positions, according to SPA.
Last week the European Parliament approved a resolution calling for the unconditional release of the detained activists and other human rights defenders.