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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 June 2018

Saudi women overjoyed to be hitting the road soon

Saudi women expressed overwhelming support and joy over their country’s surprise announcement to lift the ban on women drivers, an issue that has long been contested in the country.

King Salman’s royal decree, which is expected to take effect in June 2018, will bring an end to Saudi Arabia’s status as the only country that does not allow women drivers on the roads.

Government ministries and departments have been given 30 days to develop policies and procedures to accommodate millions of new drivers.

Razan Al Azzouni, a Saudi fashion designer, welcomed the royal decree, saying that it will have a “huge impact” on her life.

“As a business owner, I have to move around between my offices … I find it somewhat rude that to get my work done, I would have to have my driver wait outside my office in the heat for six hours just in case I need to move,” she told The National.

Although a great step towards gender equality, Ms Al Azzouni said the decree was not the first one Saudi Arabia takes to close the gap.

“We have seen many changes in the past 10 years,” she said. “It’s not that the government doesn’t want equality between women and men … [but] it is a cultural thing that cannot be overcome in just a year.

“The government has been making subtle changes and giving women their rights slowly, and I think that’s the only way to do it if you want it to stick.”

She also said that people should take into consideration that Saudi Arabia is a big country with more than 30 million people.

“That’s so many different schools of thoughts,” she noted, adding: “Change is not always accepted easily, but even if there is a backlash, I don’t think it would affect the steps already taken.”

Ms Al Azzouni said she hopes that the next steps will include the government focusing on the country’s infrastructure and public transport.

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Arwa, a 30-year-old business consultant, said that King Salman’s decree is not just a step in the right direction, but a “leap” for women in her country.

“It’s a turning point, a complete shift for us not to need a driver or a man to take us everywhere,” she said. “Great things are coming and people are more optimistic than ever, you can almost feel it in the air.

“My friend was telling me this morning how she literally can’t stop smiling, and another couldn’t sleep because of all the excitement.”

For Besma Al Husseiny, a freelance photographer, she has been waiting to hear this announcement since she was a child. An announcement that, she said, brought her to tears.

“It’s the idea that I have the choice to go out on my own, just take my car and drive,” she told The National. “It’s my right as a responsible adult and the dream became bigger since I’m the mother of girls.

"You can't imagine the happiness I feel. Thank God, because it made no sense that we could not drive. This announcement is long overdue."

Dr Ghazala Radwi, 37, a Saudi consultant haematologist, said that she appreciates the new wave of independence many women in her country will enjoy.

“I’ve driven when I was abroad in Canada for seven years, so I know how to drive,” she said. “It is a great move to have that independence and mobility.”

Dr Radwi — who has a personal driver — said that that although she had the “privilege” of having transport, she recalls events or meetings that were missed or delayed because she had to wait for her ride.

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Read more: Emiratis, UAE expats congratulate Saudi women on driving decree

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Amnah H Knight, a London-based magazine editor, is from Jeddah but has lived abroad since 1999. She said that although the decree does not have a direct effect on her, it will impact the lives of millions of women who have had to “consistently depend on men to advance from A to B”.

“Women will no longer need a crutch to access the simple freedom of movement,” she said. “That is major. Forget the fact that they will simply be able to drive. This is bigger than that. This is emotional freedom also.”

The 33-year-old said that she was proud of this huge step towards women’s right in Saudi Arabia, something — she added — they should have always had.

“This is definitely the right step in the right direction. I am incredibly wowed by it and so happy for every woman out there,” she told The National. “It should have happened years ago, but the country is changing every day.

“It's got a lot of catching up to do, but it's moving in the right direction.”

Ms Knight said that although she does believe there will be pushback from conservatives, they no longer hold the same power they used to.

“So, they will just throw tantrums like small children do,” she said.