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Elation, nerves as Saudis rev up to lift women driving ban

A Palestinian woman living in Saudi Arabia uses an electronic driving simulator during a go-cart driving workshop for women in the Saudi capital Riyadh
AFP

Riyadh (AFP) – Donning a virtual reality headset, Aziza sits behind the wheel of a racing simulator as Saudi Arabia prepares to lift its decades-old women driving ban — and instantly slams the gas pedal: 70 mph, 80, 90…

Potentially thousands of women drivers such as 22-year-old Aziza will take the wheel of a real car in the conservative desert kingdom on Sunday, when the world’s only ban on female motorists is lifted.

“This will be a big day for us,” said Aziza, a speed-loving psychology student, as she focused on the simulation, complete with a toy steering wheel and throttle, clutch and brake foot pedals.

“We have waited a long time.”

Euphoria was mixed with nervousness in the capital’s Riyadh Park complex, where traffic authorities organised a carnival of sorts to give women a feel for driving before the ban ends.

Dozens of women zipped around twisted tracks in go-karts and toy cars, while some flocked to booths where female instructors in head-to-toe Islamic niqab robes offered lessons on traffic signs.

A male traffic official demonstrated the importance of seatbelts by buckling up inside a car tethered to a hanger and upturning the vehicle.

The event, also being held in the cities of Dammam, Jeddah and Tabuk, illustrates how Saudi Arabia is preparing for the novelty of women drivers on its streets as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman seeks to modernise the conservative petro-state.

A handful of female driving schools have cropped up in big cities, training women to drive cars and also motorbikes — scenes that were unimaginable just a year ago.

– ‘No longer need a man’ –

The lifting of the ban, long derided as the most visible symbol of women’s repression in Saudi Arabia, is expected to be a life-changing experience for many, freeing them from the dependence on male chauffeurs or relatives.

“Wherever we go — hospital, hotel, restaurants -– we can now go on our own. We no longer need a man,” Hatoun bin Dakhil, a 21-year-old pharmacy student, told AFP.

“Those days of waiting long hours for a driver are over.”

Some three million women in Saudi Arabia could receive licences and actively begin driving by 2020, according to consultancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers.

However, in a nation torn between modernity and tradition, the reform has evoked nervousness about the reaction of arch-conservatives who spent decades preaching that allowing female motorists would promote promiscuity and sin.

Two Saudi women with international licences, wary of street harassment and sexist attitudes, told AFP they prefer to “wait and watch” for a few months before they consider driving.

The government has preemptively addressed concerns of sexual harassment — with a prison term of up to five years and a maximum penalty of 300,000 riyals ($80,000).

The government has permitted a handful of female driving schools in big cities, but many women complain that female instructors are in short supply and that classes are expensive.

The kingdom earlier this month began for the first time in decades issuing driving licences to women, with some swapping their foreign permits for Saudi ones after undergoing a practical test.

– Crackdown –

In an apparent attempt to dissuade those without permits, authorities have announced a fine of 900 riyals ($240) for female drivers caught without a licence on Sunday, Saudi media reported. 

Authorities this week said the first batch of women insurance inspectors are training to respond to accidents involving female drivers, but it remains unclear when they will start working.

Also testing nerves is the government’s sweeping crackdown on women activists who long opposed the driving ban.

Authorities have said that nine of 17 arrested people remain in prison, accused of undermining the kingdom’s security and aiding enemies of the state.

Rights groups have identified many of the detainees as women activists who campaigned for the right to drive and end the system of male “guardians” — fathers, husbands or other relatives, whose permission is required to travel or get married. 

Authorities, however, have said that Saudi women will not need a guardian’s permission to apply for a driver’s licence.

“I fully encourage my wife to drive,” Naif Abdulrahman, a Saudi man in Riyadh Park. “Anyone who can raise children and take care of the husband is perfectly capable of handling a car.”

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