Saudi Arabia issued driver’s licenses to 10 women on Monday, a historic move that came 20 days before the government had planned to lift its longstanding ban on women driving.
The surprise announcement followed the detention of a number of Saudis who had campaigned for women’s right to drive. Some are still being held and have been accused of grave crimes that the government has said sought to “undermine the security and stability of the kingdom.”
The lifting of the driving ban was championed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a son of the Saudi king. Prince Mohammed has ordered a number of changes that seek to diversify the kingdom’s oil-dependent economy and improve life for Saudis.
Many Saudis have applauded what they say are efforts to make life in their ultraconservative kingdom more like life elsewhere. But Prince Mohammed’s critics say the changes have come with a heavy dose of authoritarianism that has further restricted Saudis’ already limited margins for expression.
Along with opening commercial movie theaters and promoting women’s employment, Prince Mohammed has arrested scores of clerics, businessmen and some of his own royal relatives. Dozens of members of the royal family and wealthy businessmen were locked in the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton last year, accused of corruption and pressed to turn over many of their assets to the government.
It was not immediately clear why the 10 women received their driver’s licenses on Monday, 20 days before the official lifting of the ban, or whether that meant that the driving ban had in effect been lifted early.
“The dream became a reality,” the woman, Ahlam al-Thunayan, wrote, thanking both King Salman and Prince Mohammed.
The announcement said 2,000 more Saudi women could receive their licenses next week, but it provided no details about who they were or where the licenses would be issued.
Allowing women to drive is a major social change in Saudi Arabia, where women have long been kept out of public life and limited to certain professions. This has begun to change in recent years, with more young Saudi women than men graduating from universities and many women working in fields that they used to be locked out of.
Being able to drive could accelerate this process, making it easier for women to get themselves to and from work without having to pay for taxis or the foreign drivers who now shuttle them around.
But parts of Saudi society remain deeply conservative, and some men could prevent their female relatives from driving, despite the lack of a legal means to do so.
The recent arrests singled out a number of men and women who had been involved in challenging the driving ban, including some who drove around Riyadh, the capital, to publicly protest it in 1990.
Among those who are still detained are Eman al-Nafjan and Aziza al-Yousef, both academics and women’s rights campaigners; Loujain al-Hathloul, who was detained for more than 70 days in 2014 when she tried to drive her car into Saudi Arabia from the United Arab Emirates; and Ibrahim Mudaimeegh, a lawyer who defended her.
Addressing the arrests, the kingdom’s public prosecution office said on Sunday that 17 people had been detained on charges that included cooperating with people and organizations hostile to the kingdom and providing “financial and moral support to hostile elements abroad.”
Eight of those arrested were released after their cases were reviewed, the statement said, and five men and four women are still detained. The statement did not identify any of the detained by name.