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Saudi women now a little freer

Saudi women now a little freer

After years, of protesting their rights, the brave Saudi women have at last got what they want. Now, they can drive on their own. Indeed, women in Saudi Arabia can legally get behind the wheel of a car for the first time. The end of the controversial ban brings the ultra-conservative Gulf nation in line with the rest of the world. It also represents the culmination of years of campaigning by activists who have sometimes been arrested and imprisoned for their efforts. The step will free many women from the constraints of needing to use public transportation or hire a male driver to travel even small distances, allowing many more to join the workforce.

Hiring women is a key part of Saudi Arabia's ambitious plan to overhaul its economy, known as Vision 2030. The reform agenda is being spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. When the decision to lift the ban was announced last September, many women reacted with joy, hailing the new capacity it would give them to work, grow their own businesses and explore the kingdom, although many other restrictions on women's everyday lives remain in place. For some, though, the jubilation at realising a hard-won freedom will be tempered by the arrests last month of a number of Saudi rights activists, including some who have played a prominent role in the fight for women's right to drive. They were accused of "suspicious contact with foreign entities," according to a statement on Saudi Arabia's official news agency. Amnesty International called for more reforms to follow the lifting of the driving ban and for the detained women's rights activists to be freed. Human Rights Watch said that two more women's rights campaigners had been arrested in recent days "in what appears to be an unrelenting crackdown on the women's rights movement." It called for Saudi Arabia's western allies to pressure the kingdom to release all the detained rights activists unconditionally before they are sent for trial. There can be no real celebration while the women who campaigned for the right to drive and their supporters remain behind bars. Saudi Arabia follows a strict form of Wahhabi Islam that bans the mixing of sexes at public events and places numerous curbs on women, including needing the permission of a male guardian to marry, work, or travel. While there has been some loosening of restrictions in recent months, rights groups say much more remains to be done. But the lifting of the driving ban for women is good for starters. Now, the government ought not to waste any time before releasing all the women activists who are still spending their time behind bars.

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