Saudi Arabia

Some Saudi Women Rejoice Over New Right to Drive; Others Dread It

from The Wall Street Journal,

As a barrier to women’s freedom is smashed, some women worried; what about rush-hour traffic?

As the reality sank in Wednesday that Saudi women would be allowed to drive, many celebrated the removal of an enduring barrier to their freedom while others confronted new challenges to getting behind the wheel, like buying a car and navigating rush-hour traffic. “It’s a good first step; We are becoming kind of equal,” said 18-year-old Filwa al Hawas, who like most Saudi women who can afford to has a driver. “But the streets aren’t good enough for women to drive in. A lot of people drive like crazy in Riyadh.” Late Tuesday, King Salman lifted the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia, the only country in the world where the government had maintained such a restriction. The driving ban became a major flashpoint in the struggle for women’s equality and a test of wills between the kingdom’s moderates, who wanted Saudi Arabia’s strict social rules to ease, and conservatives, who viewed such changes as attempts to Westernize their society.

Saudi Arabia’s top clerical body supported the king’s decision to lift it, saying it complies with Islamic law. Still, the announcement provoked a backlash among ultraconservative Saudis. “I’m a woman and I reject women driving cars,” said a Twitter user, Hanan al Harbi. “Where are you taking the country? This will take our youth on a path toward temptation and corruption.” Some women worried they could become an easy target for conservatives if they drove. “We will just have more problems,” said Moudhy al Mishal, who is 30. “The people are not very open-minded.” Based on a royal decree, women will be allowed to obtain licenses by June, after a government panel decides on procedures. The logistical challenges range from establishing driving schools for women to enforcing traffic regulations more strictly.

The king’s announcement followed a campaign to allow women to drive that started in the early 1990s and that was led by Saudi women, some of whom were detained for defying the ban. Many of them celebrated Tuesday’s announcement, and drew praise from other Saudi women. But the Saudi government warned them against raising their profile. Saudi officials have called several of the women who led the driving campaign and warned them not to comment either positively or critically about the decision or face questioning by authorities, said Saudi women activists. “They don’t want to give any credit to the activism,” one of the women, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said on Wednesday. “They don’t want people to realize that public pressure does bring change.”

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