Saudi Arabia has issued its first driving licences to 10 women, as the kingdom prepares to lift the world’s only ban on female drivers in three weeks’ time.
However, some people who campaigned for the right to drive remain under arrest.
A government statement said the 10 women given licences already held driving licences from other countries, including the US, UK, Lebanon and Canada.
They took a brief driving exam and eye test before being issued with the licences at the traffic department in the capital, Riyadh.
Other women across the country have been preparing for the right to drive on 24 June by taking driving courses on female-only college campuses. Some are even training to become drivers for ride-hailing companies such as Uber.
Saudi women had long complained of having to hire costly male drivers, use taxis or rely on male relatives to get to work or run errands.
Several activists who campaigned for the right to drive remain under arrest, facing possible trial. Saudi Arabia’s prosecutor said on Sunday that 17 people had been detained in recent weeks on suspicion of trying to undermine security and stability, a case activists said targeted prominent women’s rights campaigners.
The prosecutor’s statement said eight people have been temporarily released, while five men and four women remained under arrest. Among the women held since 15 May are Loujain al-Hathloul, Aziza al-Yousef and Eman al-Nafjan, sources told the Associated Press.
The three are among the most outspoken and well-known women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia. They have not only risked arrest by pushing for years for the right to drive, but have also called for an end to guardianship laws that give male relatives the final say over a woman marrying or traveling abroad.
Their activism was seen as part of a larger democratic and civil rights push in the kingdom. They face a range of charges including communicating with people and organisations hostile to the kingdom and providing financial and moral support to hostile elements abroad. State-linked media have referred to the group as “foreign embassy agents” and branded them traitors.
Three other veteran women’s rights activists, who had taken part in the first protest in 1990 against the kingdom’s ban on women driving, were also briefly detained.
Nearly 50 women took part in that first driving protest 28 years ago. The women were arrested, lost their jobs and had their passports confiscated for a year.
Others were detained over the years during various efforts by women’s rights activists to drive. While Saudi law has never explicitly banned women from driving, women were not issued with driving licences. Often, police would detain a female driver until a male relative could pick her up and sign a pledge on her behalf that she would not drive again.
Ultra-conservatives viewed women driving as immoral and warned they would be subject to sexual harassment if they drove. Four years ago the country’s top cleric, Grand Mufti Abdulaziz Al Sheikh, said barring women from driving “was in the best interest of society” because it protected them from having to deal with an accident.
The kingdom faces steep economic challenges and has a burgeoning young population that has access to the world through the internet and sees women in neighbouring Muslim countries driving freely.
In an attempt to boost the economy and ease international criticism, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman has been promoting changes, such as the decision to allow women to drive, while risking a backlash from clerics and others who adhere to the ultraconservative Wahhabi interpretation of Islam.
The prince has also attempted to appeal to young Saudis by opening the country to more entertainment, allowing music concerts and bringing the first commercial movie theatre to Saudi Arabia this year.
However, rights groups say the arrest of activists by the crown prince’s security forces are an attempt to silence dissent as women prepare to drive for the first time, and may be a way to freeze any calls for greater reforms.
Liz Throssell, a spokeswoman for the UN high commissioner for human rights, has described the crackdown as “perplexing”.
“If, as it appears, their detention is related solely to their work as human rights defenders and activists on women’s issues, they should be released immediately,” she said.