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Saudi Arabia gears up to end women driving ban

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia will allow women to drive from Sunday, ending the world’s only ban on female motorists, a historic reform marred by what rights groups call an expanding crackdown on activists.

Overturning the decades-long ban, a glaring symbol of repression against women, is part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s much-trumpeted reform drive to modernise the conservative petrostate.

Potentially thousands of female drivers are set to take the wheel on Sunday, a long-awaited rite of passage for women in the kingdom that many say could usher in a new era of social mobility.

“It is a very important step and essential for women’s free mobility,” Hana al-Khamri, author of the forthcoming book “Female Journalists in Gender Apartheid Saudi Arabia”, told a French wire service.

“Women in Saudi Arabia live under patriarchal structures. Allowing them to sit behind the wheel will help challenge social and gender norms that hinder mobility, autonomy and independence.”

For many women the move should prove transformative, freeing them from their dependence on private chauffeurs or male relatives and resulting in big family savings.

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

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

Many Saudi women have ebulliently declared plans on social media to drive their mothers for coffee or ice cream as soon as the ban ends on Sunday, a mundane experience elsewhere in the world but a dazzling novelty in the desert kingdom.

 

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