Riyadh: Saudi Arabia is all set to allow women take control of the steering wheel from Sunday, making it the last country in the world to lift female driving restrictions. It will be a historic day as after more than 60 years spent stuck in the passenger seat, the Gulf kingdom's 15.1 million women for the first time will legally be able to take to the roads.
Saudi Arabia lifted the driving ban on women in September 2017 as part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's "Vision 2030" programme to diversify the economy away from oil and open up Saudi society. "I didn't think I'd see this day in my lifetime," said an enthusiastic Hamsa al-Sonosi, one of several women in Jeddah, the kingdom's second city, to have been granted a licence. "People have come back from abroad for this day alone. It's momentous," she said.
According to the BBC, accountancy firm PwC predicted that the number of women on Saudi Arabia's roads will swell to three million by 2020. Thousands of women have signed up for driving lessons as new female-only programmes have sprung up. Among those women who will not be celebrating on the streets on Sunday are the pioneers who broke social and legal taboos decades ago with their protests demanding the right to drive.
Last month, Saudi officials arrested a group of well-known feminists, among them some veterans of a 1990 protest, in what was seen as a warning to them not to take credit for the end of the driving ban. Up to 17 Saudi women at the forefront of the campaign have been detained in the past two months. Eight leading women's rights activists remain behind bars, according to Amnesty International. They are facing serious charges, including spying and sedition.
In government offices, there remains widespread wariness about the lifting of the ban. Some clerics expressed beliefs that "women are not psychologically competent to drive". "There is no doubt that there is a deep transformation happening in Saudi now," said Kristin Smith Diwan, the senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
"But we are also witnessing a horrible crackdown on some of the people that made these changes possible. What's not changing is the nature of authority."
Several men said this week that they would stay home on Sunday, convinced that car accidents -- already a problem in the country -- would surge. "The lifting of the ban is a long-overdue small step in the right direction, but must now be followed by reforms to end a whole range of discriminatory laws and practices. It is outrageous that women are still treated like second-class citizens in Saudi Arabia," said Samah Hadid, Amnesty International's Middle East Campaigns Director.