RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Saudi Arabia has issued its first driver’s licenses to 10 women ahead of June 24, when the kingdom is due to end the world’s only ban on women drivers.
Officials expect another 2,000 women to seek licenses in the coming week, according to a news release from the country’s Ministry of Media.
Activists have long called for the lifting of the ban, and there was some celebration when the kingdom said in September that the ban would end.
However, in recent weeks a number of activists who’d protested against the ban were arrested.
The arrests worried women’s rights activists and those monitoring the social reform agenda of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.
Last year, the crown prince, regarded as a major power in the country, outlined an ambitious plan to reform the Saudi economy by 2030.
Part of that goal includes increasing the number of women in the workforce.
On Saturday, the Saudi government “temporarily” released eight activists who were arrested in May for protesting against the ban.
Five women and three men were released, but another nine activists remained in custody, according to a statement from Saudi Arabia Public Prosecution.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia follows a strict form of Wahhabi Islam that places many restrictions on women and bans the mixing of sexes at public events.
Women have been required to get the permission of a male guardian for almost every activity.
But the kingdom has begun easing some of those constraints, lifting some restrictions on women’s education and improving access to public spaces like sports stadiums and movie theaters.
In September, King Salman issued the royal decree giving women permission to drive in Saudi Arabia.
In May 2017, King Salman ordered the government to list services women can seek on their own without permission from their fathers, husbands or other male guardians.
He also ordered organizations to provide transportation for female employees.
On Monday, the government took another step by issuing driver’s licenses to 10 women in exchange for their foreign licenses.
One of the women, Tahani Aldosemani, assistant professor at the Prince Sattam Bin Abdulaziz University in Al-Kharj, had a U.S. driver’s license obtained when she was studying her Ph.D.
“Driving for women is not just about driving a car; it enhances strength of character, self-confidence, and decision-making skills,” she said in a statement issued by the government.
Rema Jawdat, a risk analyst, also said in the statement, “Driving, to me, represents having a choice; the choice of independent movement, now we have that option and that’s important.”
However, some Twitter users are more skeptical of the news.
“Let’s not get lost in celebration and pretend Saudi Arabia has fundamentally ‘changed,'” one wrote. “It’s still an oppressive dictatorship. This whole thing is just for propaganda tbh.”
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There has also been an easing of restrictions on women’s ability to work in the fields of education and law. In 2015, women were elected to municipal councils for the first time.