Saudi Arabia Starts Issuing Driving Licenses To Women For The First Time In Decades

The kingdom is set to lift a decades-old ban on female drivers on June 24. But activists who campaigned for the right to drive remain imprisoned.

As Saudi Arabia prepares to lift the world’s only ban on female drivers, 10 women have reportedly been issued driving licenses in the kingdom — a first in decades for the ultraconservative Islamic country.

Despite the historic step, however, some women who campaigned for the right to drive remain behind bars. 

On Monday, the General Department of Traffic began replacing women’s foreign driving licenses for Saudi ones, said the official Saudi Press Agency, according to Al Jazeera. The women reportedly had to take a brief driving test and eye exam before receiving their new documents.

Saudi Arabia is the only nation in the world that does not permit women to drive. After years of protests by local women activists and pressure by international human rights groups, however, the country announced last year it would be lifting the decades-long ban.

Saudi women will be allowed to drive on the kingdom’s roads starting June 24. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the powerful royal described as both liberalizer and authoritarian, has been pushing a series of reforms to modernize the Arab state.

The Ministry of Information said this week that thousands of driving licenses are expected to be issued to women before the ban officially lifts.

“Expectations are that next week an additional 2,000 women will join the ranks of licensed drivers in the kingdom,” the ministry said in a statement, according to Agence France-Presse.

On Monday, a video that purportedly showed the first woman being issued a driving license in the capital Riyadh was shared on social media. 

One woman who received her license called the historic moment a “dream come true,” reported AFP. 

“Driving to me represents having a choice ― the choice of independent movement. Now we have that option,” said Rema Jawdat, a government official who said she’d driven while abroad. 

Though the issuing of licenses appears to mark a step forward for Saudi Arabia, considered one of the world’s most oppressive countries for women, the arrest last month of several women’s rights activists ― including some who’d advocated for the right to drive ― has cast a dark shadow on the occasion. 

The European Parliament has urged Saudi Arabia to release all detained human rights defenders in the country. Rights groups have condemned the kingdom’s apparently paradoxical actions.  

“It’s welcomed that the Saudi authorities have finally issued licenses to women, but the very women who campaigned for this for years are now behind bars instead of behind wheel,” tweeted Samah Hadid, Amnesty International’s Middle East director of campaigns, this week.