JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia — With her husband in the passenger seat and her daughter cheering her on, Dania Alagili guided her sport utility vehicle onto the King Abdulaziz Road early Sunday, breaking a social barrier simply by braving the roaring Saudi traffic.
“This is a day I’ve been waiting for,” she said. “For the last 30 years.”
Saudi Arabia allowed women to drive for the first time on Sunday, lifting a ban that was the last of its kind in the world and had come to symbolize the kingdom’s harsh subjugation of women.
It was one of a battery of changes ushered in by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that have loosened some social restrictions in Saudi Arabia, including the kingdom’s strictly enforced gender segregation. Saudi women have continued to agitate for more far-reaching change, including the elimination of a system of guardianship requiring women to have the permission of a male relative to travel and work.
But as women drove for the first time Sunday, drawing delighted gasps from other drivers and encouragement from women who had yet to obtain their licenses, many hailed it as an important step toward greater freedom and control over their lives.
That Alagili, 47, had earned her driving license 23 years ago, in the United States, did nothing to dampen the joy of finally driving in her own city, on her own roads, on her own.
Without the driving privileges, and dependent on her driver or her husband to get around, “I felt heavy, tied back,” she said.
She headed to her father’s house, knowing he would want to share the moment with his only daughter. “For women it’s a big deal. And for the men who supported us,” she said.
Cars raced by on the King Abdulaziz Road — a harrowing stretch of freeway that is also an argument for reconsidering the driving privileges of some men in Saudi Arabia.
“You’re doing great, Mama,” her daughter, Ahd Niazy, 23, said from the back seat. Hany Niazy, Dania’s husband, called the couple’s other daughter, Layal, 19, who lives in Washington. Her face appeared on his phone.
“Mama, how do you feel?” Layal asked.
“I feel great,” her mother said. “I feel wonderful. I am born today.”
The government’s heavily promoted celebrations of the ban’s lifting included gathering of female drivers near a mall in Jiddah about midnight Sunday. Some arrived in cars driven by their husbands, then took the wheel themselves. They set off in a small convoy, as journalists crowded around, to explore the city’s roads.
The scene recalled a protest, nearly 30 years ago in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, when dozens of Saudi women gathered at a supermarket and drove around the city before they were stopped and detained. The protest was a milestone for Saudi feminists and for what would become a decades-long campaign to end the driving ban.
The Saudi government has tried to suppress that history. In May, just weeks before the lifting of the ban, it arrested some of the country’s most prominent women’s rights advocates, including women who participated in the 1990 protest.
The arrests appeared aimed at discouraging any other political activism, and may have also been intended to assuage religious ultraconservatives who supported the driving ban and have opposed other women’s rights, analysts said.
It was not yet clear whether large numbers of Saudi women would rush to get on the roads. More than 120,000 women have applied for licenses, the government said Sunday, although the process of issuing licenses has been slowed by the small number of training schools available. Officials have highlighted the economic benefits of lifting the ban, including the savings to lower-income women who were previously forced to pay drivers.
Some women, such as Ghalia Soufi, 33, were in a hurry to embrace the opportunity — buying a car and making an appointment for a driver’s test the day the ban was lifted.
She had not minded having a driver but hated making him wait while she visited friends or relatives for hours. And as a mother of two young children, with another on the way, she found it terrifying that she could not quickly jump in the car to take them to a hospital in case of an emergency.
“I like to depend on myself. To choose my own roads, my own way,” she said.
As she drove around her neighborhood Sunday, shortly after picking up her license, she said it was possible that the novelty would wear off, that she would tire of the Jiddah traffic. But not yet.
“I never believed this would happen,” she said. “The feeling is amazing.”
Dana Algosaibi, a 37-year-old yoga instructor and horse trainer, was moving more cautiously. She had a valid license, from the neighboring state of Bahrain, and thought she might eventually buy a car — something beefy, that could pull a horse trailer. “I’m a driver, not a passenger,” she said.
But she also had a special bond with her driver, Yousef Mohammed, 55, who originally came from India and had worked for her family for nearly a quarter of a century. Mohammed had been with her when she first got her license in Bahrain, grabbing the wheel and jolting her awake when she fell asleep as she drove back toward Saudi Arabia.
And when Mohammed’s wife gave birth back in India, they named the daughter Dana.
“He knows everything about me,” Algosaibi said, adding that when she did finally start driving, she would prefer to have him along — as a passenger.
Mohammed, who was attending his daughter Dana’s engagement party in India on Sunday, said in a telephone interview that he had not given any thought about what the lifting of the ban might mean for his future as a driver. “I am happy for her,” he said. “Very very happy.”