After Driving Ban Ends, Saudi Arabia’s Women Taste Thrill of Speed

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Speed-crazed women drivers are bound to turn heads in the deeply conservative desert kingdom, which overturned the world’s only ban on female motorists in June as part of a much-hyped liberalization drive led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. For Saudi women, adrenaline rushes were unimaginable just weeks ago.

Donning a helmet inside a pearl silver sports sedan, Rana Almimoni skids and drifts around a Riyadh park, engine roaring, tyres screeching and clouds of dust billowing from the back. Almimoni, 30 and a motor racing enthusiast, is defying the perception – or sexist misconception, depending on who you ask – that only dainty cars in bright colours are popular with women drivers. Transport authorities have rolled out racing simulators to help first-time women drivers get a feel of being behind the wheel.

Auto showrooms tapping new women clients have rolled out a line-up of cherry red Mini Coopers, but sales professionals say many exhibit an appetite for muscle cars like the Camaro or the Mustang convertible. Many new drivers seek inspiration from Aseel al-Hamad, the first female member of the kingdom’s national motor federation, who got behind the wheel of a Formula One car in France in June to mark the end of the driving ban.

The driving reform is said to be transformative for women, freeing them from dependence on private chauffeurs or male relatives, but many are keeping off the streets. For now, most women drivers appear to be those who have swapped foreign licenses for Saudi ones after undergoing a practical test. Many complain that driving courses cost several times more than those available to men and that women instructors are in short supply.

While no overt incidents of street harassment have been reported publicly, many women are also wary of pervasive sexism and aggression from male drivers despite warnings from authorities. Also testing nerves is the government’s sweeping crackdown on women activists who long opposed the driving ban and a long-vilified system of male “guardians” – fathers, husbands or other male relatives, whose permission is required to travel or get married.

According to Amnesty International, at least 12 leading human rights activists, including eight women, have been arrested in Saudi Arabia since May. The crackdown triggered a diplomatic brawl with Canada after Ottawa demanded the “immediate release” of those detained.

“The Saudi government is expanding entertainment options for Saudi women but eliminating space for political expression,” said Kristin Diwan, of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.