Sabeeha al-Fakher, a 68-year-old Saudi widow, drives her pearl-silver Lexus in the coastal town of Qatif, about 400 kilometres east of the capital Riyadh Image Credit: AFP

Qatif: Buckling up in a pearl-silver Lexus, Sabeeha Al Fakher takes the wheel and relegates her son to the passenger seat, a role reversal the 68-year-old Saudi widow never imagined would be possible in her lifetime.

Until June 24 last year, the act would have been considered a crime in Saudi Arabia, where hardliners have preached for decades that allowing women to drive would promote gender mixing and promiscuity.

Overturning the world's only ban on female drivers has potentially put thousands of women behind the wheel in the most visible symbol of the conservative kingdom's modernisation drive.

Among them is Fakher, a mother-of-five who never thought she would see the reform, which ushered in a new era of freedom and mobility for women.

"I still don't believe it," she said, zipping past younger drivers in her native eastern city of Qatif.

Her husband, who passed away a decade ago, secretly taught her how to drive during trips to neighbouring Bahrain in the 1990s, despite the risk of infuriating family patriarchs.

The reform has freed many Saudi women from their dependence on private chauffeurs and male relatives.

Munirah Al Sinani, a 72-year-old mother of four, driving in the nearby city of Dhahran with her husband in the passenger seat, said: "We go wherever."

Arson attacks

The move was part of Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman's much-trumpeted reform drive aimed at overhauling the conservative state.

Their new-found mobility allows women to join a labour market chronically short of female workers. Some three million women could receive licences and start driving by 2020, according to consultancy firm PwC.

Only a handful of driving schools for women have cropped up in Saudi cities, where applicants have rushed to learn to drive cars and even Harley-Davidson motorbikes — scenes unimaginable until recently.

Social media is rife with memes of traffic pileups blamed on women drivers, along with condescending messages advising women to "avoid wearing makeup" while driving.

More alarmingly, arsonists "opposed to female drivers" torched a woman's car near the holy city of Makkah last July, Saudi media reported.

The woman had reportedly started driving to save money — she had been spending much of her salary on hiring a driver. Since then local media has reported at least five more arson attacks on women's cars in several cities.

Opposition from 'guardians'

Many women also face opposition from family members, in a country where women are often only as free as their "guardians" — husbands, fathers and other male relatives — allow.

Women need a guardian's permission to study, get married or even renew passports.

That is not the case for driving licenses, but it is unclear what legal recourse women have if guardians physically prevent them from taking the wheel.

Fakher recalled asking two conservative Qatif families: "Why are you stopping the girls?"

She was accused of "interference" and told that their fathers were keen on preventing their daughters from driving. The women appeared to have no say in the matter.


As Saudi Arabia Monday marks one year since it allowed women to drive for the first time, a flagship reform as the Kingdom seeks to overhaul its ultra-conservative image, other reforms that affect women include:


In July 2017, Saudi Arabia's education ministry announced girls' schools would begin to offer physical education classes for the first time, provided they conform with Islamic law. The ministry did not specify whether girls would need permission from their guardians to take part. Saudi Arabia has several women-only universities.


Restrictions the guardianship system has long imposed on women's employment have been loosened in Saudi Arabia. Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, named heir to the throne in June 2017, has promoted an economic plan known as "Vision 2030", which aims to boost the female quota in the workplace from 22 to 30 percent by 2030.

King Salman, his father, has signed decrees allowing women to apply online for their own business licences. The Saudi police force now also employs female officers.

Personal status

Under the guardianship system, women of all ages require the consent of their male guardian to get married. A man may divorce his wife without her consent. In January, the Saudi justice ministry said courts were required to notify women by text message that their marriages had been terminated, a measure apparently aimed at ending cases of men getting a divorce without informing their partners.

Public spaces

In January 2018, women were allowed into a special section in select sports stadiums for the first time. They had previously been banned from attending sporting events.

Saudi Arabia has also reined in its morality police, who for decades had patrolled the streets on the lookout for women with uncovered hair or bright nail polish.