After lifting a decades-old ban on women driving, Saudi Arabia issued 10 drivers’ licenses to women on Monday.
The step comes three weeks before restrictions on women driving are to be lifted following King Salman bin Abdulaziz’s decision last year to allow women to drive.
Saudi local media anticipates about 2,000 licenses will be issued to women next week, citing information from the Saudi Ministry of Information.
“The General Directorate of Traffic today started replacing international driving licenses recognised in the kingdom with Saudi licenses, in preparation for allowing women to drive,” the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA) said.
The owners of the 10 newly issued drivers’ licenses were reported to have previously held licenses from other countries, including the UK, Lebanon, and Canada, and were reported to have taken a brief driving test before having the right granted to them in Saudi Arabia.
When the ban is lifted, women in Saudi Arabia will have reached a major achievement towards empowerment, after years of activism and struggle against the ultraconservative kingdom.
The ban has been used by the kingdom’s new leader, Mohamed bin Salman, to propagate new “empowerment” steps.
However, the positive move followed the detention of 17 people last week for “undermining” the kingdom’s security, in what human rights organisations have described as a crackdown against activists.
Rights groups identified some of the detainees as female campaigners for the right to drive and to end the conservative Islamic country’s male guardianship system.
Within days of the activists’ arrests, pro-government newspapers and social media accounts launched an alarming and seemingly coordinated campaign against them, branding them as “traitors.”
Authorities said eight of the detainees had been “temporarily released” until their investigation is completed. However, the SPA reported that nine suspects, including four women, remained in custody after they “confessed” to a number of charges, including suspicious contact with “hostile” organisations and recruiting people in sensitive government positions.
Saudi activists told Human Rights Watch that the seriousness of the allegations and the viciousness of the deeply personalised media campaign are unprecedented and shocking.