[Dr Samira al-Ghamdi, a practicing psychologist, drives her car out in her neighborhood while going to work, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia June 24, 2018. (Reuters Photo)]
Riyadh: 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 modernise the conservative petrostate -- but it has coincided with a sweeping crackdown on female activists who long opposed the driving ban. Hiring women is a key part of Saudi Arabia's ambitious plan to overhaul its economy, known as Vision 2030.
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, according to AFP.
"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.
Joumana Mattar, 36, a Jordanian interior designer, exchanged her Jordanian driver’s license and obtained a Saudi one on June 11.
“I had my Jordanian license since I was 18 years old, and the moment I heard about the opening of exchanging foreign licenses, I immediately booked an appointment,” she said talking to Arab News.
Mattar said she looks forward to the change in so many ways. “I'm finally in control of my time, schedule and privacy", she said.
Mattar said she is both confident and anxious about the event. “I'm anxious only for feeling that I'm part of a huge first step for women driving in the Kingdom, but I'm confident also because of the support that I'm getting from my husband and family.
“Every first step is the hardest. Society is facing a huge change, but I'm positive because this change is done and supported by the government and Vision 2030", she added.
Mattar said she feels secure now. “I'm in control of any case I'm facing", she said.
Sahar Nasief, 64, a retired lecturer from the European languages and Literature Department at King Abdulaziz University, said, “Nothing could describe my feelings. I can't wait to get on the road.” Nasief received a very special gift from Ford for this occasion.
“They gave me a 2018 Expedition to drive for three days, a Mustang California Special,” she told Arab News.
Some three million women in Saudi Arabia could receive licences and actively begin driving by 2020, according to consultancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers.
When the decision to lift the ban was announced last September, many women reacted with joy, hailing the new capacity it would give them to work, grow their own businesses and explore the kingdom -- although many other restrictions on women's everyday lives remain in place.
The Kingdom has already issued its first driver's licenses to a handful of Saudi women, in exchange for ones they acquired while overseas. It also staged events last week in the cities of Riyadh, Dammam, Jeddah and Tabuk to raise awareness of road safety, traffic laws and safe driving habits. Women who were new to driving could try out driving simulators and practice parking, according to a CNN report.
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