Saudi Arabia issues first driving licences to women

Saudi Arabia issues first driving licenses to 10 women

Saudi Arabia issues first driving licenses to 10 women

However, rights groups say the arrest of activists by the crown prince's security forces are an attempt to silence dissent as women prepare to drive for the first time, and may be a way to freeze any calls for greater reforms.

Driving schools are also being set up across the kingdom with some female instructors who learned to drive in other countries.

But casting a shadow on the reforms, Saudi Arabia last week said it detained 17 people for "undermining" the kingdom's security, in what campaigners have dubbed a sweeping crackdown against activists. After years of protests by local women activists and pressure by global human rights groups, however, the country announced last year it would be lifting the decades-long ban.

The AP reports that the women now under arrest could potentially face a trial.

Women driving was seen as immoral by the ultraconservatives in Saudi Arabia. "European and world leaders must not stay silent in the face of gross and systematic violations of the human rights of activists and human rights defenders", said the UK-based rights group in a statement.

Nine suspects, including four women, remain in custody after they "confessed" to a slew of charges such as suspicious contact with "hostile" organisations and recruiting people in sensitive government positions, according to SPA.

Previous reports in state-backed media branded some of the detainees traitors and "agents of embassies".

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"All the requirements for women in the kingdom to start driving have been established", Bassami told the AFP.

While Saudi law has never explicitly banned women from driving, women were not issued driving licences.

He said the 32-year-old prince has done more than any king in the last 50 years to advance women's rights in Saudi Arabia - an effort that has required him to push back against a "very strong, conservative, reactionary part of society that has been resisting these changes for decades".

In announcing the government's decision to lift the ban on female drivers previous year, Prince Salman said women will not need approval from their guardians to get a driver's license and will be able to drive alone in the vehicle.

Prince Salman also attempted to appeal to young Saudis by opening the country to more entertainment, allowing music concerts and bringing the first commercial movie theater to Saudi Arabia this year.

Liz Throssell, a spokeswoman for the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, has described the crackdown as "perplexing".

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