As women in Saudi Arabia took the wheel just after midnight Sunday – the first time they could legally do so in the kingdom — it marked the end of the country’s longstanding ban on female drivers.
The mood was celebratory: New drivers blared music from their cars. Social media lit up with jubilant photos and videos, and traffic police in some Saudi cities presented women drivers with flowers. Even from afar, Aseel al-Hamad, the first woman to become a member of the Saudi Arabian Motorsport Federation, saluted the end of the ban by driving a Formula One car in France.
The first driver’s licenses were issued to women on June 4. More than 120,000 women have applied for licenses, according to the Saudi Interior Ministry, “and demand remains extremely high,” a spokesman told a press conference in Riyadh.
But even as happy scenes played out, high-profile Saudi activists who have long fought for women’s right to drive languish in detention. They were arrested and jailed last month, branded as “traitors” in the Saudi media. They include 28-year-old social media figure Loujain al-Hathloul, university professor Eman al-Nafjan and Aziza al-Yousef, a 60-year-old mother of five.
Other activists are now living outside the country. As the ban ended, Manal al-Sharif, who was arrested for driving in 2011 and is now based in Australia, cheered on Saudi women via Twitter, calling them “unstoppable.” She announced a new campaign to free the jailed activists — and to end Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system for women, which requires a male relative or other guardian’s consent for women to work, travel abroad or marry.