PHOTOS: Saudi Women Start Driving, But Activists Remain Jailed With the ban lifted on female drivers, Saudi women can sit legally in the driver's seat for the first time. But global concern is high over detention of activists who fought for the right to drive.
NPR logo PHOTOS: Saudi Women Start Driving, But Activists Remain Jailed

PHOTOS: Saudi Women Start Driving, But Activists Remain Jailed

A Saudi woman celebrates with her friends as she drives her car in al-Khobar, Saudi Arabia, on Sunday. The lifting of the ban on women driving marks a milestone for women in the kingdom who have had to rely on drivers, male relatives, taxis and ride-hailing services to get to work, go shopping and simply move around. Hamad I Mohammed/Reuters hide caption

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Hamad I Mohammed/Reuters

A Saudi woman celebrates with her friends as she drives her car in al-Khobar, Saudi Arabia, on Sunday. The lifting of the ban on women driving marks a milestone for women in the kingdom who have had to rely on drivers, male relatives, taxis and ride-hailing services to get to work, go shopping and simply move around.

Hamad I Mohammed/Reuters

As women in Saudi Arabia took the wheel just after midnight Sunday – the first time they could legally do so in the kingdom — it marked the end of the country's longstanding ban on female drivers.

The mood was celebratory: New drivers blared music from their cars. Social media lit up with jubilant photos and videos, and traffic police in some Saudi cities presented women drivers with flowers. Even from afar, Aseel al-Hamad, the first woman to become a member of the Saudi Arabian Motorsport Federation, saluted the end of the ban by driving a Formula One car in France.

The first driver's licenses were issued to women on June 4. More than 120,000 women have applied for licenses, according to the Saudi Interior Ministry, "and demand remains extremely high," a spokesman told a press conference in Riyadh.

But even as happy scenes played out, high-profile Saudi activists who have long fought for women's right to drive languish in detention. They were arrested and jailed last month, branded as "traitors" in the Saudi media. They include 28-year-old social media figure Loujain al-Hathloul, university professor Eman al-Nafjan and Aziza al-Yousef, a 60-year-old mother of five.

Other activists are now living outside the country. As the ban ended, Manal al-Sharif, who was arrested for driving in 2011 and is now based in Australia, cheered on Saudi women via Twitter, calling them "unstoppable." She announced a new campaign to free the jailed activists — and to end Saudi Arabia's male guardianship system for women, which requires a male relative or other guardian's consent for women to work, travel abroad or marry.

Nada Edlibi holds up her Saudi driver's license in Jeddah on Sunday, the first day that she is legally allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. Sean Gallup/Getty Images hide caption

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Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Nada Edlibi holds up her Saudi driver's license in Jeddah on Sunday, the first day that she is legally allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Hannan Iskandar is kissed by her parents after she drove her car in her neighborhood in al-Khobar on Sunday. Hamad I Mohammed/Reuters hide caption

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Hamad I Mohammed/Reuters

Hannan Iskandar is kissed by her parents after she drove her car in her neighborhood in al-Khobar on Sunday.

Hamad I Mohammed/Reuters

A Saudi woman sits in a driving simulator during an awareness campaign in Jeddah on June 21. Zohra Bensemra/Reuters hide caption

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Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

A Saudi woman sits in a driving simulator during an awareness campaign in Jeddah on June 21.

Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

Activist Aziza Yousef, shown here stepping out of her car after driving on a Riyadh highway on March 29, 2014, as part of a campaign to defy Saudi Arabia's ban on women driving, is among several high-profile activists who were detained last month. Hasan Jamali/AP hide caption

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Hasan Jamali/AP

Activist Aziza Yousef, shown here stepping out of her car after driving on a Riyadh highway on March 29, 2014, as part of a campaign to defy Saudi Arabia's ban on women driving, is among several high-profile activists who were detained last month.

Hasan Jamali/AP

A day before the ban was lifted, a Saudi woman drives a go-kart at Riyadh Park Mall at an educational event to prepare Saudi women to take the wheel. Gehad Hamdy/picture alliance via Getty Image hide caption

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Gehad Hamdy/picture alliance via Getty Image

A day before the ban was lifted, a Saudi woman drives a go-kart at Riyadh Park Mall at an educational event to prepare Saudi women to take the wheel.

Gehad Hamdy/picture alliance via Getty Image

Majdooleen, one of the first women allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, refuels her car as she drives to work in Riyadh on Sunday. Faisal Nasser/Reuters hide caption

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Faisal Nasser/Reuters

Majdooleen, one of the first women allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, refuels her car as she drives to work in Riyadh on Sunday.

Faisal Nasser/Reuters

An image made from video released by Saudi activist Loujain al-Hathloul shows her driving toward the Saudi border with the United Arab Emirates before her arrest on Dec. 1, 2014, in Saudi Arabia. She was arrested again last month and remains in detention. Loujain al-Hathloul/AP hide caption

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Loujain al-Hathloul/AP

An image made from video released by Saudi activist Loujain al-Hathloul shows her driving toward the Saudi border with the United Arab Emirates before her arrest on Dec. 1, 2014, in Saudi Arabia. She was arrested again last month and remains in detention.

Loujain al-Hathloul/AP

Samira al-Ghamdi, 47, a psychologist, practices driving around the side streets of a Jedddah neighborhood on June 21, in preparation to hit the road on Sunday as a licensed driver. Zohra Bensemra/Reuters hide caption

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Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

Samira al-Ghamdi, 47, a psychologist, practices driving around the side streets of a Jedddah neighborhood on June 21, in preparation to hit the road on Sunday as a licensed driver.

Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

Hala Hussein Alireza, a newly licensed motorist, drives a car on a main road in Jeddah early on Sunday. Amer Hilabi/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Amer Hilabi/AFP/Getty Images

Hala Hussein Alireza, a newly licensed motorist, drives a car on a main road in Jeddah early on Sunday.

Amer Hilabi/AFP/Getty Images

After midnight Sunday, Dania Alagili, 47, parks the car after taking her family out for a drive for the first time in the streets of Jeddah. Iman Al-Dabbagh /The Washington Post/Getty Images hide caption

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Iman Al-Dabbagh /The Washington Post/Getty Images

After midnight Sunday, Dania Alagili, 47, parks the car after taking her family out for a drive for the first time in the streets of Jeddah.

Iman Al-Dabbagh /The Washington Post/Getty Images

Women leave after looking at cars at the Al-Jazirah Ford showroom in Riyadh on June 21. Nariman El-Mofty/AP hide caption

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Nariman El-Mofty/AP

Women leave after looking at cars at the Al-Jazirah Ford showroom in Riyadh on June 21.

Nariman El-Mofty/AP