At the stroke of midnight local time on Sunday, extraordinary scenes unfolded on the roads of Saudi Arabia.
Women were seen behind the wheels of cars and astride motorcycles — driving on the country’s streets for the first time in decades, following the Islamic kingdom’s decision to lift the world’s only ban on female drivers.
Pedestrians cheered as women motorists drove by, and male drivers shouted words of support and offered thumbs-ups through car windows. Photos shared on social media showed Saudi police officers giving out flower bouquets and cards with words of encouragement emblazoned on them to women drivers.
“I always knew this day would come. But it came fast. Sudden,” talk show host Samar Almogren told The Guardian as she drove across the capital Riyadh. “I feel free like a bird.”
Other women used similar language to describe their maiden driving experiences. “It’s liberating,” one woman told Al-Arabiya on Sunday.
“I feel happy, relieved, I feel like I’m free,” an oncologist in Jeddah enthused, according to CNN, as she drove her husband and children around the city.
Saudi Arabian officials announced last year they would be overturning the nation’s longstanding ban on women drivers — part of a series of reforms pushed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman aimed at modernizing the Arab state. It was announced in May that the ban would officially lift on June 24.
The ban’s reversal, however, has coincided with a recent crackdown on women’s rights activists in the country. According to human rights groups, more than a dozen activists have been arrested since May, including Loujain al-Hathloul, a prominent campaigner against the driving ban. Amnesty International said on Friday that al-Hathloul, as well as at least seven other activists, are currently behind bars facing lengthy prison sentences.
“While we welcome the fact that women can finally get behind the wheel, we should not forget that many people are still behind bars for their work in fighting for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia,” Samah Hadid, Amnesty’s Middle East campaigns director, said in a statement.
Hadid added that while the lifting of the ban “is a long-overdue small step in the right direction, [it] must now be followed by reforms to end a whole range of discriminatory laws and practices,” including the country’s restrictive guardianship laws that require women to get the consent of male guardians for a variety of basic needs.
Saudi Arabia began issuing driving licenses to women in early June. By 2020, three million women in Saudi Arabia could receive licenses, according to The Guardian, citing estimates by the consultancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers.
Social media was abuzz on Sunday with images and videos of women getting behind the wheel in Saudi Arabia for the first time. Scroll down to see a sampling of them.