Women in Saudi Arabia will be permitted to drive for the first time beginning next summer, according to a royal decree issued this week. The policy change overturns a widely criticized restriction on human rights and is the most visible sign yet of a modernizing Saudi Arabia, with reforms implemented by the heir apparent to the Saudi throne, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
We spoke to several Saudi women about what the change means to them and how their friends and families reacted to the announcement.
Raneen Bukhari, 30, art curator who lives in Jiddah
“I’m not super shocked. I am extremely happy, but I was kind of expecting this because the narrative of women driving has changed in the last two months. On Twitter, a lot of men — journalists, government officials — have changed their narrative and have been talking about how they support women driving.
It was strange to see that change, because they were older men, like my dad’s age, talking about allowing their daughter to drive.
The first message I got was from my dad, and he said, 'Is it true?' My phone was exploding with messages from every single friend who knows I am passionate about this topic. It’s been a crazy few hours.
I follow a lot of 'for-driving' people. I’ve been an activist for a while. And on other women’s rights issues. This is the issue we started with because we felt it was the easiest topic to pursue. A lot of my friends and I got into different levels of trouble because of this. Every time there was a movement for women to drive, I participated. I did my part, and I took a video of myself driving and posted it. I personally know most of the women who have been more brave.”
Muna Abusulayman, talk show host who lives in Riyadh
“Historic day, as it brings Saudi women almost to the finish line in rights equal to her male counterpart. It means she has the right to make her own choices.”
Sahar Bahrawi, writer who lives in Jiddah
“This announcement means the world. It means we obtained our right for mobility thanks to our king. Now we are really free; we are really celebrating.
We are all capable, educated women, and we were confined to drivers in order to go to our work and be as productive as we wanted to be; we had to pay a hefty salary to our drivers.”
All the men around me, especially my husband, are very much supporting of women. They believe in women's independence, and they are very happy because they no longer have to run all the errands and pay for drivers.”
Loulwa Bakr, a senior financial adviser who lives in Jiddah
“I am just happy that I no longer have to tell my 7-year-old to stop ogling at women driving in Europe because yes, it's normal and okay for women to drive!
One small pedal for Saudi women, one giant leap for womankind.
A major lifestyle improvement no doubt, for some more than others. But definitely a significant status symbol that indicates major social reform agenda; there is no turning back.”
It doesn't feel real to me yet, won't feel real until I am behind the wheel surrounded by women drivers. I believe they have to install some important measures related to road safety before implementation.”
Elham Almas, 30, a new-product development manager in Dammam
“I was sipping tea sitting in my living room working on my open mic event, trying to make my own change here. It’s an underground thing, but hopefully it will be legal here one day. My WhatsApp suddenly went crazy. Messages all over, everywhere. The men on there were so supportive and welcoming and congratulating us.
When I saw those messages, I felt weird, shocked, scared and happy — a mix of emotions. I thought it was a joke at first, a terrible one. I’ve been fighting for this, and finally it’s here. I didn’t think I’d live to see it. I honestly don’t know why I felt scared. It’s taboo, and now suddenly it’s legal. How would the country react? It’s scary; it’s a bold move. Women went to prison a few years back for this. And now look. They’re true heroes.”