Roses and selfies as women take to the roads in Saudi Arabia for first time

Josie Ensor
A Saudi woman celebrates as she drives her car in her neighborhood, in Al Khobar, Saudi Arabia, - REUTERS

Female drivers took to the roads in Saudi Arabia on Sunday after a decades-long ban was lifted, making it the last country in the world to allow women behind the wheel.

Thousands went out for their first legal drive, marking a momentous day that many in the deeply conservative kingdom did not think they would see in their lifetime.

Some went out at the stroke of midnight - when the law was officially overturned - and cruised along Jeddah’s seaside road. For others it was a more mundane affair of ferrying their children to school.

"I'm overwhelmed, I don't feel like this is really happening," Sara al-Haji, 35, told the Telegraph. "I get to live like a normal person now."

On social media, women across the country posted pictures of themselves in the driving seat of their new cars.

Others responded with tweets of support, using the hashtag #You_Will_Drive_and_the_ People_Are_With_You.

Credit: Reuters

Policemen handed out roses to the first-time drivers, breaking social norms for the gender-segregated society.

Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a billionaire businessman who until recently was locked up in the Carlton Ritz Hotel after being swept up in the government’s anti-corruption drive, posted a video of his daughter’s first ride: “Finally, out for a ride with my daughter Reem as she drives me and my granddaughters in Riyadh!”

The overwhelming majority of Saudi Arabia’s some 16 million women, however, still do not have driving licenses and could not get behind the wheel today.

Many have not had a chance to take the driving courses that were first offered to women only a few months ago.

There is also a waiting list of several months for courses at Princess Nora University in Riyadh and Effat University in Jeddah, the two main centres for learners. And the classes can be costly, running to several hundred pounds.

That did not stop some, who risked a potential fine of up to £200 and drove without a licence.

“I’ve waited too long to wait any more,” said Asma, a nurse from the Red Sea city of Jeddah, “if I keep to the speed limit maybe they won’t see me.”

Hannan Iskandar is kissed by her parents, after she drove her car in her neighborhood, in Al Khobar Credit: Reuters

Even traffic police seemed not to want to dampen the mood of the historic day by stopping cars to check drivers’ IDs.

A handful of female taxi drivers were also out. Careem, a ride-hailing app, had “Captinahs” taking fares.

Careem, which already has 80,000 drivers in Saudi Arabia, said it hoped women would be among the 20,000 or so it is planning to recruit there over the next four years.

The lifting of the ban - the most visible symbol of women's repression in Saudi Arabia - will be a life-changing experience for many, freeing them from the dependence on male chauffeurs or relatives.

An estimated six million - or 65 per cent of the female driving-age population - are expected to apply for a licence now the ban has been lifted, according to the London-based consulting firm Facts Global Energy.

Hannan Iskandar drives her car in her neighborhood, in Al Khobar Credit: Reuters

But others told the Telegraph they were in no rush.

“After a lifetime of having a chauffeur, I can’t imagine my life without one,” said Joumana, a professor at King Abdulaziz University. “I am aware not all women in Saudi have this luxury, but a great many middle-class families do.

“I believe it’s the right of every human to drive and I want to have the ability to make such a basic decision, but I don’t necessarily want to practice it."

Even the most conservative women said they thought the right to drive was important, but fewer said they were willing to be among the first to take to the road.

 Saudi woman uses a driving simulator at an event to promote the lifting of Saudi Arabia's women's driving ban Credit: Sam Tarling for The Telegraph

For decades, hardliners cited austere Islamic interpretations to justify the driving ban, with some asserting that women lacked the intelligence to drive and that lifting it would promote promiscuity.

Tribal tradition and religious decrees often trump state law in Saudi Arabia, and men can be protective of the modesty of their wives, daughters and sisters.

Most women in the kingdom have never driven here, at least not legally.

The only women Saudis have ever seen behind the wheel in their country were female American soldiers in their jeeps during the first Gulf War in the early 1990s, the sight of which prompted protests by activists demanding the same right.

It would be 28 years before their demands would be met, though Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman would make sure they were not out on the roads on Sunday to claim any of the credit.

Eman Joharjy, a designer with a boutique in Jeddah, told the Telegraph women had been so excited for the 24th that pre-orders have been flooding in for her custom driving abayas.

Mrs Joharjy had specialised in athletic abayas for running and cycling, but was not sure she would ever see the day she would be creating some for motorists.

The sleeves are made of tight elastic, so as not to get caught on the indicators, and the bottom half tails into loose trousers to allow freer movement on the pedals.

“At first people laughed at me, because I was doing something no one had before,” she said, speaking from her store Stitches in an upmarket neighbourhood of the city. “But they are modest and very practical, a combination which is hard to find in Saudi.”

While she does not yet have her licence, she is excited that some of her customers will be out on the roads.

“We may not be like America, or the UK, but we are a modern society now with women driving and it works for us,” Mrs Joharjy smiled.