Women in Saudi Arabia have been eagerly waiting for this day for a long time.
Starting June 24 at midnight local time (today at 10pm London time, 5pm New York time), women will finally be allowed to drive a car on their own, capping a 30-year campaign to end the world’s last ban on female drivers. Until now, Saudi Arabia was the only country in the world where women were legally required to be driven by chauffeurs or travel with male family members.
Things quickly changed after a royal decree from the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, last September enabled women to obtain driver’s licenses. With the promise of greater independence, many women across the conservative kingdom signed up for driving lessons and road safety education classes at universities. The first licenses were issued earlier month and about 2,000 female drivers now have official permits to get behind the wheel, the BBC reports.
Speaking the Guardian, Hamsa al-Sonosi described how momentous June 24 is.”I didn’t think I’d see this day in my lifetime,” she says, relieved that she can finally take her new Range Rover to the open road.”People have come back from abroad for this day alone.” she said.
But as Saudi women take the driver’s seat, the rights activists who spearheaded the campaign to end the driving ban are still in prison or have been forced into exile. Accused of treason, Saudi officials have arrested several women and their male supporters. With a possibility of a 20-year prison sentence, nine women including prominent activist Loujain al-Hathloul are slated to face a criminal court established to discern terrorism-related cases.
In a June 20 statement, Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, calls for international support on behalf of the activists languishing in prisons.”It is imperative for Saudi Arabia’s Western allies to speak out in solidarity with the detained activists and to pressure the Saudi authorities to unconditionally release those detained for their work as human rights activists before they are referred for trial,” said Whitson. “There can be no real celebration on June 24 while the women who campaigned for the right to drive and their supporters remain behind bars.”