Saudi Arabia issues driving licences to women
on Monday issued the first driving licenses to 10 women as the kingdom prepares to lift the world’s only ban on women driving in three weeks, but the surprise move comes as a number of women who had campaigned for the right to drive are under arrest and facing charges related to their activism.
A government statement said the 10 women who were issued licences already held driving licences from other countries, including the U.S., U.K., Lebanon and Canada. They took a brief driving test and eye exam before being issued the licences at the General Department of Traffic in the capital, Riyadh. International media were not present for the event.
Other women across the country have been preparing for the right to drive on June 24 by taking driving courses on female-only college campuses. Some are even training to become drivers for ride hailing companies like Uber.
The surprise move to issue some women licences early comes as four iconic Saudi women’s rights activists who had campaigned for the right to drive remain under arrest, facing possible trial. Saudi Arabia’s prosecutor said on Sunday that 17 people had been detained in recent weeks on suspicion of trying to undermine security and stability, a case activists said targeted prominent women’s rights campaigners.
The prosecutor’s statement said eight have been temporarily released, while five men and four women remain under arrest. Among the women held since May 15 are Loujain al-Hathloul, Aziza al-Yousef and Eman al-Nafjan, according to sources.
Nearly 50 women took part in that first driving protest some 28 years ago. The women were arrested, lost their jobs, had their passports confiscated for a year and faced severe stigmatization.
Others were detained over the years during various efforts by women’s rights activists to drive. While Saudi law has never explicitly banned women from driving, women were not issued driving licences. Often, police would detain a female driver until a male relative could pick her up and sign a pledge on her behalf that she would not drive again.
Ultraconservatives viewed women driving as immoral and warned women would be subject to sexual harassment if they drove. Just four years ago, the country’s top cleric, Grand Mufti Abdulaziz Al Sheikh, said barring women from driving “was in the best interest of society” because it protected them from having to deal with an accident.
But the kingdom faces steep economic challenges and a burgeoning young population that has access to the world through the Internet and sees women in neighboring Muslim countries driving freely.
To boost the economy and ease international criticism, Saudi Arabia’s 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been promoting changes, like the decision to allow women to drive, all while risking backlash from clerics and others who adhere to the ultraconservative Wahhabi interpretation of Islam.
The prince has also attempted to appeal to young Saudis by opening the country to more entertainment, allowing music concerts and bringing the first commercial movie theater to Saudi Arabia this year.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by Daily Report and is published from a The Hindu.)
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