Saudi women in driver's seat as longstanding ban is lifted





RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) - Saudi women steered their way through busy city streets on Sunday, driving to work, running errands and relishing a new era in which they are allowed to drive and no longer need to rely on men to move around.

A longstanding ban on women driving was lifted at midnight, ushering in a historic moment for women who have been at the mercy of their husbands, fathers, brothers and drivers for transportation. The ban had relegated women to the backseat, restricting when they could meet friends, where they could spend their time and how they could plan out their day.

"It feels beautiful. It was a dream for us so when it happens in reality, I am between belief and disbelief- between a feeling of joy and astonishment," said Mabkhoutah al-Mari as she pulled up to order a drive-thru coffee on her drive to work.

The 27-year-old mother of two is a driving instructor for women and already had a driver's license from the U.S., where she'd spent time in Tennessee studying. But on this morning, she drove freely in her hometown of Riyadh for the first time.

For most of her life al-Mari relied on drivers hired by her family, and she and her sisters had to coordinate drop-offs and pick-ups.

"Now, thanks to God, I can plan out my own schedule and my errands and my daughters' errands," al-Mari said.

Before she got in the car to drive Sunday morning, her older brother sent her off with a kiss on the forehead and a wave. His support, as her male guardian, is key.

Although women do not need male permission to obtain a driver's license, the culture still dictates that fathers, husbands and brothers have final say. A woman's male guardian must give his approval before she can marry or travel.

For nearly three decades, outspoken Saudi women and men had called for women to have the right to drive as a symbol of other changes they said were needed in the deeply conservative kingdom.

While there was never explicitly a law against women driving in Saudi Arabia, a ban was enforced by police and licenses were not issued to women. The ban had been a stain on the country's reputation and hindered women's ability to contribute to the economy.

In 1990, during the first driving campaign by activists, women who drove in Riyadh lost their jobs and were barred from traveling abroad, even as women in other conservative Muslim countries drove freely. Even their husbands faced punishment.

Ultraconservatives in Saudi Arabia had warned against women driving, saying it would lead to sin and expose women to harassment. Ahead of lifting the driving ban, the kingdom passed a law against sexual harassment with up to five years in prison for the most severe cases.

Since King Salman announced that women would be allowed to drive, Saudi clerics have changed their tone. On Sunday, the country's senior council of clerics said women driving was religiously permissible and in the interests of the country.

With unequivocal state-backed support for the change, more Saudis are openly embracing the move as long overdue.

"I'm speechless. I'm so excited it's actually happening," said Hessah al-Ajaji, who drove her family's Lexus in the capital, Riyadh, at the stroke of midnight when the ban came to an end.

As for male drivers on the road, "they were really supportive and cheering and smiling," she said.

The most emphatic supporters of women's right to drive, however, have been silenced. Three of the women who'd taken part in the 1990 protest and several others who campaigned years later for the right to drive were arrested last month. Some have been temporarily released.

Three of those still detained- Aziza al-Yousef, Loujain al-Hathloul and Eman al-Nafjan- are seen as icons of the women's rights movement in Saudi Arabia. The government has accused them of national security crimes, including working with "foreign entities" to harm the interests of the kingdom.

Their stunning arrest has cast a pall on the social openings being pushed by 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is seen as the force behind reforms reshaping the kingdom.

As she drove through the streets of Riyadh, Ammal Farahat, a mother of two, said the right to drive is more than just a top-down decision.

"It's like they say the ocean is made of little drops of water and that's exactly how I feel today. It's the efforts of everyone, little drops of sweat," Farahat said.

Not all women are driving at once, though. The overwhelming majority of women in Saudi Arabia still don't have licenses. Many haven't had a chance to take the gender-segregated driving courses that were first offered to women only three months ago.

The Interior Ministry says there are four driving schools for women in the country, with two more licensed to start soon. The ministry declined to disclose how many women had received licenses so far, saying the process is still in the early stages.

The limited number of women's driving schools has led to a wait-list of several months, and there are still many cities without courses. The classes also cost several hundred dollars, far more than what men currently pay.

Some women simply prefer to wait and see how the situation on the streets pans out and how male drivers react before they jump in the driver's seat. Others are comfortable being driven by chauffeurs or their husbands and see no need to drive themselves.

But there are a handful of women eagerly awaiting the end of another roadblock: When women can drive motorcycles.

At the Bikers Skills Institute, General Manager Wael bin Huraib says more than 80 women have registered to take the course and five have completed it since he opened it up to females three months ago. The women practice riding in a closed circuit on the outskirts of the capital.

"We all know that culture does change with time," he said. "It has nothing to do with the religion. We all will stick to our beliefs and this is something that is not negotiable ... however, what we want is to have a normal life."

___

Associated Press writers Fay Abuelgasim and Malak Harb contributed to this report.

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