Published: Sun, June 24, 2018

Landmark day for Saudi women as kingdom's controversial driving ban ends

Landmark day for Saudi women as kingdom's controversial driving ban ends

Starting June 24 at midnight local time (today at 10pm London time, 5pm NY time), women will finally be allowed to drive a vehicle on their own, capping a 30-year campaign to end the world's last ban on female drivers.

The move, which follows a sweeping crackdown on women activists who long opposed the ban, is part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's wide-ranging reform drive to modernise the conservative petrostate.

A Saudi woman celebrates with her friends as she drives her vehicle in Al Khobar, Saudi Arabia, June 24, 2018.

Some women immediately got behind the wheel in their first legal road trips as drivers in the kingdom.

There is now a 500 to 900 riyal imposed on women who drive before the ban is officially lifted.

"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.

Women's efforts to overturn the ban in a country that h go back decades.

Within minuted of the ban expiring at midnight, videos surfaced of women hitting the streets and driving through the kingdom. The next year, one of those activists - Wajeha al-Huwaider - made a film of herself driving and posted it online.

Activists and diplomats have speculated that the arrests of more than a dozen women's rights advocates over the past month were aimed at appeasing conservative elements or at sending a message to activists not to push demands too far.

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".

The crown prince's modernization efforts have won praise at home and overseas, but he has also provoked unease with an anti-corruption purge a year ago, when scores of royals and top businessmen were detained at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh.

It's also the law in Saudi Arabia that every woman must have a male guardian.

They were accused of "suspicious contact with foreign entities", according to a statement on Saudi Arabia's official news agency. They face up to 20 years in prison if convicted. Both women are being held incommunicado, HRW said.

"Nobody knows where they are now, whether they have access to lawyers, whether they have access to justice, and we are really very much concerned about their lives and what's going on with them". This is often a relative or the woman's husband.

A Palestinian woman residing in Saudi Arabia uses an electronic driving simulator during a go-cart driving workshop for women in the Saudi capital Riyadh on June 21, 2018.

"Women can't travel overseas without the permission of their male guardian, they can't study overseas, they can't issue a passport - these are basic rights of women, and at the end of the day they have to get them".

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