June 23, 2018 / 11:54 AM / 6 months ago

Saudi women gear up for new freedom as driving ban ends

* Ban seen as emblem of women’s repression ends on Sunday

* Part of reforms aimed at overhauling economy and society

* Accompanied by crackdown on dissent and arrest of activists

By Stephen Kalin

RIYADH, June 23 (Reuters) - Women will hit the roads in Saudi Arabia on Sunday with the lifting of the world’s last ban on female drivers, long seen as an emblem of women’s repression in the conservative kingdom.

The move, ordered last September by King Salman, is part of sweeping reforms pushed by his powerful young son Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who aims to transform the economy of the world’s top oil exporter and open up its cloistered society.

“We are ready, and it will totally change our life,” said Samira al-Ghamdi, a 47-year-old psychologist from Jeddah, one of the first Saudi women to be issued with a driving license.

The lifting of the ban, which for years drew international condemnation and comparisons to the Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan, has been welcomed by Western allies as proof of a new progressive trend in Saudi Arabia.

But it has been accompanied by a harsh crackdown on dissent, including against some of the very activists who previously campaigned against the ban. They will sit in jail as their peers take to the road legally for the first time.

Saudi women with foreign licenses only began converting them earlier this month, so the number of new drivers is expected to remain low at first. It will be some time before others learning to drive at new state-run schools are road ready.

And some women still face resistance from conservative relatives. Many accustomed to using a private driver say they are reluctant to take on the Muslim kingdom’s busy highways.

“I definitely won’t like to drive,” said Fayza al-Shammary, a 22-year-old saleswoman. “I like to be a princess with someone opening the car door for me and driving me anywhere.”

Concerns that women drivers will face abuse in a country where strict segregation rules usually prevent women from interacting with unrelated men prompted a new law last month with jail and hefty fines for sexual harassment.

The Interior Ministry plans to hire women traffic police for the first time, but it is unclear when they will be deployed.

ECONOMIC BOON

The decision to lift the ban in the tightly-controlled Muslim kingdom - where once-forbidden cinemas and concerts have also returned - is expected to boost the economy, with industries from car sales to insurance to reap returns.

It should also encourage more women into the workforce and raise productivity, if only modestly at first.

Auto companies have seized the moment with theatrical ads marking the end of the ban, and private parking garages designated “ladies” areas with pink signage.

Social media is also celebrating with tweets like #You_Will_Drive_and_the_People_Are_With_You. Some reactions have been more derisive or expressed concern about social impacts.

Much of the kingdom’s overwhelmingly young population supports Prince Mohammed’s reforms, but many Saudis fear their speed could provoke a backlash from religious conservatives once seen as dominant.

Activists and diplomats have speculated that the arrests of more than a dozen women’s rights advocates over the past month were aimed at appeasing conservative elements or at sending a message to activists not to push demands too far.

The crown prince’s modernisation efforts have won praise at home and abroad, but he has also provoked unease with an anti-corruption purge last year, when scores of royals and top businessmen were detained at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh. Most were freed after reaching settlements with the government.

Even with the end of the driving ban, Saudi Arabia remains one of the most restrictive countries for women, who need permission from legally mandated male guardians for important decisions such as foreign travel and marriage.

Activists have already begun campaigning to end the guardianship system, which has been chipped away at slowly over the years. Prince Mohammed declared in an interview earlier this year that he believes men and women are equal.

But veteran Saudi activist Hala Aldosari says women remain second-class citizens and criticised the crown prince’s “piecemeal approach” as serving the interests of the elite at the expense of women from more restrictive families.

“Worst of all will be if these small-scale reforms, and the silencing of feminists, slow the momentum for pushing the Saudi regime into making more meaningful change,” she wrote in a U.S. newspaper this week. (Additional reporting by Marwa Rashad, Sarah Dadouch and Reuters TV Editing by Ros Russell)

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