Riyadh (AFP) – The morning after Saudi Arabia lifted its decades-old ban on women driving, the excitement at a sleek Riyadh cafe was palpable as female patrons streamed in for a latte.
“I haven’t slept since last night,” exclaimed Nora, her eyes glowing, rimmed with black liner.
Though she wore a black niqab which concealed most of her face, Nora’s excitement on Wednesday was infectious.
“I am 27 years old and I’ve been waiting ages for this decision. Now it’s finally a reality, and I can’t wait for it to come into effect in nine months,” she told AFP.
The kingdom will issue driving licences to women from next June, in the most striking reform yet credited to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, despite the risk of a backlash from conservatives and Muslim religious hardliners.
At the same cafe, Sara sat by a window with wooden screens to shade her from the sun, as well as the gaze of passersby.
“This is going to help us,” the 20-year-old said, referring to the lifting of the driving ban.
“We’ll be able to take care of ourselves and won’t need anyone to drop us off or pick us up.
“Everyone will be free and independent. It’s a little bit of freedom for women. To go and come as she pleases without needing anyone,” Sara said.
Outside on the street, Abdul Aziz Ahmed in a crisp white thobe gave a Saudi male perspective:
“Say a woman has a job — she has to get to work. Uber is out of the question! She’d be riding with a man,” he laughed, referring to the segregation of the sexes in Saudi Arabia.
“It’s better for her to drive,” the 25-year-old said.
– Social media reacts –
The state-run Saudi Press Agency posted statement after statement of approval from officials and provincial governors in the wake of the royal decree.
Even the kingdom’s highest religious body said the majority of its members had accepted that women driving was “permissible”.
On the unfiltered web, a full spectrum of views could be found.
“This decision was made to please (US President Donald) Trump and his daughter and to suck in the Western press,” a male Twitter user mocked.
When the decision went public Tuesday night, an Arabic hashtag “the king supports women driving” went viral.
A negative slogan “the people refuse women driving” also sprang up.
“The Saudi people and especially the young people are not ready for this phenomenon and it will bring a lot of misfortune,” one male Twitter user fretted.
Another tweet, apparently directed at male heads of families, read: “You are responsible for your family, not the government. The decision is in your hands.”
But most who used the negative hashtag were women mocking men opposed to them driving.
On the whole, negative reactions were few and far between — and some of the most vociferous opponents were from outside Saudi Arabia.
Many Saudi men said the lifting of the ban would help society as a whole.
“This decision is a long time coming. It will go a long way towards easing the suffering of many women and families and end a ridiculous argument that’s gone on too long,” one man tweeted.
Another echoed his sentiment:
“This decision will only increase society’s maturity, cohesion and sense of responsibility.”