SAUDI ARABIA — Women in Saudi Arabia can legally get behind the wheel of a car for the first time Sunday as the kingdom lifts its longstanding ban on women driving.
The end of the controversial ban brings the ultra-conservative Gulf nation into line with the rest of the world.
It also represents the culmination of years of campaigning by activists who have sometimes been arrested and imprisoned for their efforts.
The landmark step will free many women from the constraints of needing to use public transportation or hire a male driver to travel even small distances, allowing many more to join the workforce.
Hiring women is a key part of Saudi Arabia’s ambitious plan to overhaul its economy, known as Vision 2030. The reform agenda is being spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
When the decision to lift the ban was announced last September, many women reacted with joy, hailing the new capacity it would give them to work, grow their own businesses and explore the kingdom — although many other restrictions on women’s everyday lives remain in place.
The kingdom has already issued its first driver’s licenses to a handful of Saudi women, in exchange for ones they acquired while overseas.
It also staged events last week in the cities of Riyadh, Dammam, Jeddah and Tabuk to raise awareness of road safety, traffic laws and safe driving habits. Women who were new to driving could try out driving simulators and practice parking.
For some, though, the jubilation Sunday at realizing a hard-won freedom will be tempered by the arrests last month of a number of Saudi rights activists, including some who have played a prominent role in the fight for women’s right to drive.
They were accused of “suspicious contact with foreign entities,” according to a statement on Saudi Arabia’s official news agency.
Among those arrested were Loujain Al-Hathloul, who was previously detained for 73 days in 2014 after trying to drive from the United Arab Emirates to Saudi Arabia and Aziza al-Yousef, 70, one of the country’s earliest activists for the right to drive. Both remain in custody, rights group Amnesty International said Thursday.
Rights groups have condemned the crackdown and voiced fears that it could presage a closing down of Saudi civil society.
Saudi activist and author Manal al-Sharif, who was jailed in Saudi Arabia 2011 after posting a video on YouTube of herself driving a car, had planned to visit the country from Australia, where she now lives.
But she told CNN last month she had canceled the upcoming trip out of fear for her safety.
“We are back to square one,” she said. “We used to live in a police state; if you speak up you go to jail. And then there would be a defamation campaign against you, saying all sort of untrue things. Character assassination. We are seeing that same pattern again now.”
Sharif also told CNN that after Saudi authorities announced plans to allow women to drive, they called her and asked her not to speak to the media about it.
Amnesty: ‘Bravery and determination’
In Thursday’s statement, Amnesty International called for more reforms to follow the lifting of the driving ban — and for the detained women’s rights activists to be freed.
“The lifting of the ban is testament to the bravery and determination of the women’s rights activists who have been campaigning on the issue since the 1990s, and the activists following up their groundbreaking work in subsequent campaigns since 2011,” said Samah Hadid, Amnesty International’s Middle East campaigns director.
“While we welcome the fact that women can finally get behind the wheel, we should not forget that many people are still behind bars for their work in fighting for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia.”
Human Rights Watch said Wednesday that two more women’s rights campaigners had been arrested in recent days “in what appears to be an unrelenting crackdown on the women’s rights movement.” It called for Saudi Arabia’s western allies to pressure the kingdom to release all the detained rights activists unconditionally before they are sent for trial.
“There can be no real celebration on June 24 while the women who campaigned for the right to drive and their supporters remain behind bars,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
Saudi Arabia follows a strict form of Wahhabi Islam that bans the mixing of sexes at public events and places numerous curbs on women, including needing the permission of a male guardian to marry, work or travel.
While there has been some loosening of restrictions in recent months, rights groups say much more remains to be done.