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Saudi Arabia Lifts Ban on Women Drivers


Zuhoor Assiri drives her car in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, June 24, 2018.

Saudi Arabia has lifted the world's last ban on women drivers.

The move Sunday is a milestone for Saudi women who have had to rely on drivers, male relatives, taxis or ride-hailing services to get around.

Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia’s government began issuing licenses to women who already held driving licenses from other countries, including Britain, Lebanon and Canada. The women took a brief driving test before receiving their new licenses.

However, most women in the country do not yet have driver’s licenses. Many have not had a chance to take a driving course, which is required for the license. The classes have been offered for only about three months.

The United Nations released a statement Sunday that said the "Secretary-General wishes to pay tribute to the women of Saudi Arabia for their efforts in achieving this important legal milestone, which should contribute to women’s economic and social mobility and the development of the country. He looks forward to witnessing Saudi Arabia’s continuing journey toward substantive equality for women and girls."

But Bloomberg news agency said its interviews with Saudi women show the majority are conflicted about the new development, both being excited to drive but also wanting to respect their culture. Women say it will likely take some time for society to adapt to the change.

Car companies are also gearing up for the change, with car sales expected to increase as the country’s 10 million women take to the roads. Earlier this year, Ford sponsored a driving experience for women in the city of Jeddah.

Ride-hailing services Uber and Careem said they have begun recruiting female drivers.

While Saudi Arabia’s government has been taking steps to legalize women drivers, police last month arrested several women who campaigned for the right to drive as well as campaigned against the country's male guardianship system. Rights groups say several women activists remain in custody, facing possible trial.

Three of them, icons of the women's rights movement Aziza al-Yousef, Loujain al-Hathloul and Eman al-Nafjan, are accused by the government of national security crimes, including working with "foreign entities'' to harm the interests of the kingdom.

In Saudi Arabia, women are legally required to get approval from a male guardian for many decisions. These can include education, employment, marriage, travel and medical treatment.

In announcing the government's decision to lift the ban on female drivers last year, Saudi Arabia's King Salman said women will not need approval from their guardians to get a driver’s license and will be able to drive alone in the car. He said they will have permission to drive anywhere in the kingdom, including the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

The king said the decision marks a "huge step forward" and that "society is ready" for the change.

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