Saudi women take wheel

Fatima Salem giggles with hesitation when it's her turn to drive through a small parking lot lined with bright orange cones and arrows. Like millions of Saudi women, she plans on applying for a driver's license when the kingdom lifts its ban on women driving in June. But first, she has to learn how to drive.

"I'm a little nervous," the 30-year-old master's student said.

Francesca Pardini, an Italian former racecar driver, helps calm her nerves, reminding Salem to check the mirrors and buckle up. Once on the road, Pardini reached over to help straighten out the wheel after a left turn, and they both lurched forward when Salem stepped on the brakes before a stop sign.

The right to drive, which people in other countries gain as teenagers after a similar ordeal — derisively referred to as driver's ed — has been denied to Saudi women. Dozens who dared to protest and defy the ban over the years were jailed, prosecuted and stigmatized.

A stunning royal decree issued last year by King Salman announcing that women would be allowed to drive in 2018 upended one of the most visible forms of discrimination against women in Saudi Arabia, where guardianship laws still give men the final say on whether a woman can travel abroad, obtain a passport or marry.

The king's 32-year-old son and heir, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has pushed through a number of other reforms to relax some of the country's ultraconservative rules, including allowing women into stadiums to watch sports, bringing back musical concerts and promising a return of movie theatres this month after a more than three-decade ban.

The reforms are aimed at improving Saudi Arabia's image abroad, attracting foreign investors, increasing women's participation in the workforce and boosting local household spending as lower oil prices force the kingdom to undertake sensitive austerity measures.

The ban on women driving has been costly for Saudi families. The wealthy hire and house male drivers, often from South Asian countries, while others make due with taxis and ride-hailing services. Still, for many women, commuting to work or running basic errands requires a husband or son who can make the drive.

At the female-only campus of Effat University in Jiddah, dozens of young Saudi students dressed in long, loose black robes — still the required dress code — braved the afternoon heat for a chance to learn how to drive on their own.

The university organized training this week for students to learn the basics of how to operate a car. For most of the young women, the hour-long training, sponsored by Ford Motor, is the first time they've ever sat in the driver's seat. Female-only universities across Saudi Arabia are expected to offer women full driving courses once the rules and guidelines from the government are announced.

"I felt out of place. I've never sat on that side of the car. Usually I always sit in the back or on the right side, but it felt good. You feel, like, in control," said Sara Ghouth, an 18-year-old freshman. "I want to drive a car. I want to be independent."

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