Riyadh, Saudi Arabia — Saudi Arabian women celebrated being able to drive for the first time in decades Sunday, as the kingdom overturned the world’s only ban on female motorists, a historic reform expected to usher in a new era of social mobility.
The move is part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s wide-ranging drive to modernize the conservative petrostate — but it has coincided with a sweeping crackdown on female activists who long opposed the driving ban.
Women in Riyadh and other cities began zipping around streets bathed in amber light soon after the ban was lifted at midnight, with some blasting music from behind the wheel.
“I always knew this day would come. But it came fast. Sudden,” said talkshow host and writer Samar Almogren as she drove across the capital. “I feel free like a bird.”
Television presenter Sabika al-Dosari said the end of the ban was “a historic moment for every Saudi woman” before driving a sedan across the border to the kingdom of Bahrain.
The lifting of the ban, a glaring symbol of repression, is expected to be transformative for many women, freeing them from dependence on private chauffeurs or male relatives.
Euphoria was mixed with disbelief as women across the kingdom flooded social media with photos and videos of their maiden car rides, with a heavy police presence in major cities.
“This is a great achievement,” billionaire Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal said as his daughter Reem drove a family SUV, with his granddaughters applauding from the back seat.
“Now women have their freedom,” he added in a video posted on Twitter.
Some three million women in Saudi Arabia could receive licenses and actively begin driving by 2020, according to consultancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers.
The kingdom earlier this month began issuing its first driving licenses to women in decades, with some swapping their foreign permits for Saudi ones after a practical test.
A handful of female driving schools have cropped up in several cities, training women to drive cars as well as Harley Davidson motorbikes — scenes unimaginable even a year ago.