Saudi woman legally behind the wheel 28 years after aunt's protest

RIYADH(Reuters) - After Fawzia al-Bakr drove through the streets of Riyadh in 1990 to challenge a ban on women driving in the conservative kingdom, she lost her job, received death threats and had to move house.

Majdooleen, who is among the first Saudi women allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, drives her mother to work in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia June 24, 2018. REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser

Twenty-eight years later, at the stroke of midnight on Sunday, her niece stepped into a black Lexus, rolled down the windows and smiled at the feel of the warm breeze as she drove legally for the first time in Saudi Arabia.

“It looks way different from the backseat. I’m just so happy, my eyes are just like everywhere. I’m not used to this,” said Majdooleen al-Ateeq, 23.

The recent U.S. college graduate was on her way to class last September when she learned that King Salman had ordered an end to the ban, which has long been seen as an emblem of women’s repression.

“I had to call my family in Riyadh to ask them if this was true,” she said. “All I could think about is: I can do my own stuff, I don’t have to ask for anyone to take me around.”

The ban, once justified on a variety of religious and cultural pretexts, forced women to rely on male relatives for transportation or spend large sums on chauffeurs.

It became a prime target of activists seeking to end discriminatory practices which curtail women’s role in public life and makes them the legal wards of male “guardians”.

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The first public demonstration came on Nov. 6, 1990, when 47 women drove around central Riyadh for nearly an hour until they were detained by the religious police. Among them were Ateeq’s aunt, Bakr, and her mother.

“I’m envious of her, to be honest. It’s so natural for her to drive and get her insurance and everything, whereas it was extremely difficult for us,” Bakr said on Sunday when her niece drove to visit her.

“I’m thrilled. I am so happy that our society and our leaders reached this point where we’re driving. We’re so natural, just like any other woman around the world.”

Bakr plans to start driving on Nov. 6 to commemorate her historic stand.

Not all her fellow activists may have that option. The authorities arrested more than a dozen of them over the past month on charges of suspicious contact with foreign enemies, and state-backed media branded them traitors.

Among the detainees were three women who participated in the 1990 protest. They have since been released, but other prominent rights campaigners like Eman al-Nafjan, Loujain al-Hathloul, and Aziza al-Yousef remain in prison.

Activists and diplomats have speculated that the arrests were aimed at sending a message not to push demands too far or at appeasing conservative elements opposed to the reform agenda.

Other women may not get behind the wheel anytime soon either because of resistance from conservative relatives.

Ateeq, however, was ready. She shipped her car home from California earlier this year, and took it out for a spin to visit her father’s home in the early hours of Sunday.

“He’s never seen me drive before,” she said. “He just knew I drove in California, and now it’s going to be his first time to see his daughter driving.”

Editing by Stephen Kalin and Toby Chopra