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Midnight Cheers and Disbelief as Saudis End Ban on Women Driving

Vivian Nereim
Saudi Samar Al-Moqren prepares to drive her car through Riyadh city's streets for the first time just after midnight, June 24, 2018, when the law allowing women to drive took effect. - Saudi Arabia will allow women to drive from June 24, ending the world's only ban on female motorists, a historic reform marred by what rights groups call an expanding crackdown on activists. 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. (Photo by FAYEZ NURELDINE / AFP) (Photo credit should read FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images) Photographer: FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP

They hit the road at midnight in celebratory packs, whooping and ululating for joy.

Teenagers gathered on Riyadh’s main boulevard to gawk. Men cracked jokes about how lucky they were to no longer have to chauffeur their wives around.

Saudi Arabia’s infamous ban on women driving came to an end with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, as a handful of women maneuvered their way through the still-packed streets of the capital early Sunday. In a more secluded area, a couple dozen foreign and Saudi women gathered to celebrate, planning to drive together in a convoy looping the neighborhood.

Few issues have been as polarizing in the conservative Islamic kingdom as the prohibition on female drivers, which Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman vowed to end as a key part of his plan to open up the kingdom’s oil-dependent economy and loosen social restrictions.

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The government has been keen to promote the end of the ban as a sign that women’s rights are advancing after decades of international criticism, even after several of the country’s most prominent women’s rights activists were arrested last month in a national security-related case. They included women who fought for years to be able to drive.

Many Saudis breathed a sigh of relief when the government announced in September that it would end the ban. Others have quietly opposed the move, arguing that allowing women to drive violates local customs and could lead society down the path to sin.

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Some women say they never want to drive. Others say they’ll wait a while, worried they could face harassment.

“My heart is pumping,” one woman said after starting her engine, suddenly overtaken by nerves.

“You’re going to do great!” a passenger shouted from the back seat. Then she drove off, music floating from the open windows as a chorus of women cheered her on.

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