As the clock struck midnight on June 23, women in Saudi Arabia hit the roads in their cars. For the first time in the kingdom’s history, they were the ones behind the wheel.
Saudi Arabia’s ban on female drivers was officially lifted this week and the women marked the momentous occasion by driving their way into history. Police officers along the roads handed out flowers to women drivers who, giddy with delight, shouted, laughed and captured the iconic moment on camera (videos above and below).
News organisations from around the world flocked to Riyadh and Jeddah to document the moment that came after years of campaigning – Saudi Arabia was the last country in the world to lift the ban on women driving. Overnight, the few women in the kingdom who had licences ready were propelled to celebrity status.
Among them was Reem, the daughter of Prince Al Waleed bin Talal, one of the wealthiest men in the kingdom. He posted a video (below) at midnight that showed her driving and, according to The Guardian, he said, “Saudi Arabia has finally entered the 21st century.” He also commended Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, for lifting the ban, one of many measures he is taken to improve the country’s economy.
In neighbouring Bahrain too, women queued up to carve a niche in history. Aysha Bahlool, Basima Al Haram and Nadia Fayez became the first women to drive across the King Fahad Causeway from Bahrain to Saudi Arabia and timed their journey so that they would enter Saudi just after midnight. They told Gulf News, “We wanted to be the first ones to do it, so we were at the borders right at midnight.”
Even car companies like Audi and Jaguar rose to (and capitalised on) the occasion by posting videos and advertisements that showed Saudi Arabian women driving.
According to The Guardian, though the number of licenses issued to women haven’t been made public, about 30 women in Jeddah can legally drive at the moment, and thousands have applied.
However, while thousands celebrated the historic moment, several on social media pointed out that the women activists who pushed for the cause remain behind bars. Around 12 women’s rights activists have been detained since May and a Reuters report said that “activists and diplomats have speculated that the new wave of arrests may be aimed at appeasing conservative elements opposed to reforms and that it may be a message to activists not to push demands out of sync with the government’s own agenda.”
The Human Rights Watch noted, “There can be no real celebration today while the women who campaigned for the right to drive and their supporters remain behind bars.”