Saudi Women Officially Behind The Wheel

Women in Saudi Arabia are finally allowed to drive and even work as drivers - but critics say there is still a long way to go.

What you need to know
  • Before Sunday, Saudi Arabia was the only country in the world where women could not drive
  • The change coincides with a crackdown on activists who campaigned against the driving ban
  • Saudi women are still not free to marry, work, travel or access healthcare unless they are accompanied by, or have permission from, a male relative

Women in Saudi Arabia have literally taken to the streets following the historic end to the country's decades-old ban on female drivers.

The controversial ban ended at midnight on Sunday and saw many women immediately get behind the wheel and post their first official solo drive on social media.

"It feels weird, I am so happy ... I'm just too proud to be doing this right now," said 23-year-old Majdooleen al-Ateeq as she cruised across Riyadh for the first time in her black Lexus.

The change brings the ultra-conservative Kingdom into line with the rest of the world, placing its women at the centre of a major transformation being spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

However the celebrations were mixed with continuing concerns over women's rights in other areas, including the rights of women who remain imprisoned for campaigning for the law change.

There is also a tug-of-war between those agitating for more openings for them and a religious majority that remains wary of changes that could be influenced by the West.

It was only a few years ago that religious police enforced an austere interpretation of Islam that banned music of any kind in public, much less the sound of a woman's voice.

They could detain groups of unmarried men and women for simply standing or sitting together. They ensured restaurants and shops closed for daily prayers and waved sticks at women who had their hair or face uncovered.

Unlike previous Saudi monarchs who took cautious steps on reform, King Salman has granted his 32-year-old son and heir, Crown Prince Mohammed, a free hand to usher in dramatic moves.

Allowing musical concerts, opening cinemas, easing restrictions on gender segregation and reigning in the powers of the religious police have all been signature reforms of the young prince.

He's seen as the force behind the king's decision to lift the ban on women driving.

On Friday, outside a shopping centre in capital Riyadh, young single men and women walked through an open-air exhibit where Saudi women and traffic police explained the details of handling a car.

A song with a woman's voice blared through the loudspeakers, singing: "I love you Saudia. My love, Saudia."

Just four years ago, this government-sponsored event was unthinkable.

Granting women the right to drive is part of a wider blueprint for the future drawn up by the crown prince. The government is pushing Saudis to become less reliant on the government for jobs, handouts and subsidies.

Official statistics show women make up the overwhelming majority of job seekers in Saudi Arabia.

The state cannot create enough public sector jobs to keep up with the pace of Saudis seeking work, so foreigners are being booted out of jobs to make way. Companies must stack their workforce with a minimum number of Saudi nationals or face heavy fines.

To encourage two-income households, Saudi women are taking on jobs that were once reserved for men.

On Sunday, when they start driving, many will no longer need to hire drivers. Women will even be allowed to work as drivers.

Saudi women are continuing to express their joy on social media.

With AAP