Latifa Al-Zahrani

Latifa Al-Zahrani

Journalist

International media: Saudi Arabia is living a historic moment

Not long after the Saudi General Department of Traffic issued the first national driver’s licenses for nine Saudi women did the news make headlines of international media, and not without reason; for many Western observers, this development is nothing short of a historic milestone for Saudi women’s lives.  

“They had been selected from the thousands who have applied, with many more licenses due to be issued by 24 June, when the ban is due to be lifted,” reported The Guardian’s Emma Graham-Harrison in an article covering the news, adding: “For years women have been forced to spend a large slice of their salary on a driver or depend on a combination of taxis, friends and relatives.”

Changing times

American Time magazine is also taking note of Saudi Arabia’s entirely new state of affairs; some 28 years ago, the magazine recounted, nearly 50 women led the first protest against the driving ban in the Kingdom. “The women were arrested, lost their jobs, had their passports confiscated for a year and faced severe stigmatization,” it wrote, while today, they can not only practice this right, but also, fiercely protect and defend it.

In a bid to sway international public opinion and diversify an economy in transition, Saudi Arabia’s young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had been “promoting changes, like the decision to allow women to drive, all while risking backlash from clerics and others who adhere to the ultraconservative” norms and values, Time wrote, and reopening sociocultural doors with the return of entertainment, from music concerts to the Kingdom’s first commercial movie theater after a multi-decade ban.

“International media weren't present for the event,” reported CBS News, but the surprise move, ahead of the official driving ban lift on women in Saudi Arabia on June 24, already captured attention and headlines around the world.

In March, “CBS This Morning” co-host Nora O’donnell visited Saudi Arabia’s first driving school for women, CBS News added. Students enrolled in the school told O’Donnell that the decree allowing them to drive is “a small change, but it's a significant impact on our society," assuring that men have been “significantly positive”. Timing was also key, they added, as the same decision, back in 2011 and 2013, would have been – and its prospect certainly was – negatively received by the public.

A sense of responsibility

As reported by CNN, and according to the Saudi Ministry of Information, another 2,000 women may be obtaining their driver’s licenses in the coming week.

“Activists have long called for the lifting of the ban,” CNN said, and naturally, united in celebration when King Salman bin Abdulaziz issued the now historic decree entailing the application of traffic law – including driver’s licenses – to men and women alike. The decree was part of a larger endeavor by the Kingdom to “ease some of those constraints” on Saudi women’s state of affairs, CNN added, “lifting some restrictions on women's education and improving access to public spaces like sports stadiums and movie theaters.”

Reporting on statements issued by the government and made by Saudi women who were granted the first national driver’s licenses, CNN quoted Reema Jawdat, a risk analyst with 12 years of driving experience in Lebanon, Switzerland and the US, who said: "Driving, to me, represents having a choice; the choice of independent movement, now we have that option and that's important."

Tahani Aldosemani, assistant professor at the Prince Sattam Bin Abdulaziz University in Al-Kharj, was also quoted by CNN to say: "Driving for women is not just about driving a car; it enhances strength of character, self-confidence, and decision-making skills".

History in the making

In what it dubbed a “historic moment”, American Newsweek magazine wrote that the video showing the first Saudi woman receiving her first national driving license “quickly garnered attention on social media, with many Saudis expressing their congratulations and support”. The Kingdom “was the only country in the world to still prohibit women from driving,” Newsweek added, and “has been preparing for months to end the ban”.

In its article reporting on the news, under the headline: “Making History, Saudi Arabia Issues Driver’s Licenses to 10 Women”, The New York Times says the move was applauded by many Saudis under what they believe where efforts “to make life in their ultraconservative kingdom more like life elsewhere”.

The decision allowing women to drive would be a “major social change in Saudi Arabia”, NYT said, “where women have long been kept out of public life and limited to certain professions. This has begun to change in recent years, with more young Saudi women than men graduating from universities and many women working in fields that they used to be locked out of.

Being able to drive could accelerate this process, making it easier for women to get themselves to and from work without having to pay for taxis or the foreign drivers who now shuttle them around.”

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