‘It’s liberating’: Saudi women take the wheel as decades-old driving ban ends

At the stroke of midnight local time on Sunday, extraordinary scenes unfolded on the roads of Saudi Arabia.

Women were seen behind the wheels of cars and astride motorcycles — driving on the country’s streets for the first time in decades, following the Islamic kingdom’s decision to lift the world’s only ban on female drivers. 

Pedestrians cheered as women motorists drove by, and male drivers shouted words of support and offered thumbs-ups through car windows. Photos shared on social media showed Saudi police officers giving out flower bouquets and cards with words of encouragement emblazoned on them to women drivers.

“I always knew this day would come. But it came fast. Sudden,” talk show host Samar Almogren told The Guardian as she drove across the capital Riyadh. “I feel free like a bird.”

Other women used similar language to describe their maiden driving experiences. “It’s liberating,” one woman told Al-Arabiya on Sunday.

RELATED: Saudi women take the wheel as decades-old driving ban ends

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Saudi women take the wheel as decades-old driving ban ends
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Saudi women take the wheel as decades-old driving ban ends
A Bahrain women's group from Yalla Banat arrives in Saudi from a bridge to celebrate with Saudi women the lifting of the driving ban on women, in east Saudi Arabia, June 24, 2018. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed
Bahraini and Saudi women celebrate the lifting of the driving ban on women in east Saudi Arabia, June 24, 2018. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed
Bahraini and Saudi women celebrate the lifting of the driving ban on women in east Saudi Arabia, June 24, 2018. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed
Bahraini Nouf Al Maloud (R) hugs Saudi Zahoor Assiri (L) as they arrive in east Saudi in their cars to promote and congratulate Saudi women on the lifting of the driving ban in Saudi Arabia June 24, 2018. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed
Bahraini woman Eman Mohammed takes a selfie with her phone as she celebrates with Saudi and Bahraini women the lifting of the driving ban on women, in east Saudi Arabia, June 24, 2018. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed
Samira al-Ghamdi, a practicing psychologist, drives her car to work, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia June 24, 2018. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A Saudi woman celebrates as she drives her car in her neighborhood, in Al Khobar, Saudi Arabia, June 24, 2018. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Dr Samira al-Ghamdi, a practicing psychologist, drives her car out in her neighborhood while going to work, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia June 24, 2018. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Samira al-Ghamdi, a practicing psychologist, wait to get coffee as she drives to work in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia June 24, 2018. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra
Majdooleen, who is among the first Saudi women allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, drives her car in her neighborhood in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia June 24, 2018. REUTERS/Sarah Dadouch
Saudi women celebrate after they drove their cars in Al Khobar, Saudi Arabia, June 24, 2018. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed
A Saudi woman celebrates with her friends as she drives her car in Al Khobar, Saudi Arabia, June 24, 2018. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Zuhoor Assiri gestures as she drives her car in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, June 24, 2018. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed
Zuhoor Assiri drives her car in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, June 24, 2018. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed
Samira al-Ghamdi, a practicing psychologist, reacts as she drives to work in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia June 24, 2018. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra
Samira al-Ghamdi, a practicing psychologist, reacts as she drives to work in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia June 24, 2018. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra
Samira al-Ghamdi, a practicing psychologist, smiles while making a stop to refuel her car as she drives to work in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia June 24, 2018. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra
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
Samira al-Ghamdi, a practicing psychologist, drives to work with her son Abdulmalik, 26, sitting behind, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia June 24, 2018. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra
Hala Hussein Alireza, a newly-licensed Saudi motorist, opens the door of a car before leaving her driveway in the Red Sea coastal city of Jeddah early on June 24, 2018. - Saudi Arabia ended its longstanding ban on women driving on June 24, 2018 -- and the second the clock struck midnight, women across the country started their engines. (Photo by Amer HILABI / AFP) (Photo credit should read AMER HILABI/AFP/Getty Images)
Hala Hussein Alireza, a newly-licensed Saudi motorist, drives a car on a main road in the Red Sea coastal city of Jeddah early on June 24, 2018. - Saudi Arabia ended its longstanding ban on women driving on June 24, 2018 -- and the second the clock struck midnight, women across the country started their engines. (Photo by Amer HILABI / AFP) (Photo credit should read AMER HILABI/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - Hala Hussein Alireza, a newly-licensed Saudi motorist, drives a car in the Red Sea coastal city of Jeddah early on June 24, 2018. - Saudi Arabia ended its longstanding ban on women driving on June 24, 2018 -- and the second the clock struck midnight, women across the country started their engines. (Photo by Amer HILABI / AFP) (Photo credit should read AMER HILABI/AFP/Getty Images)
JEDDAH, SAUDI ARABIA - JUNE 24: Nada Edlibi holds up her Saudi Arabian driver's license on the first day that she is legally allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia on June 24, 2018 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has today lifted its ban on women driving, which had been in place since 1957. The Saudi government, under Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, is phasing in an ongoing series of reforms to both diversify the Saudi economy and to liberalize its society. The reforms also seek to empower women by restoring them basic legal rights, allowing them increasing independence and encouraging their participation in the workforce. Saudi Arabia is among the most conservative countries in the world and women have traditionally had much fewer rights than men. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
JEDDAH, SAUDI ARABIA - JUNE 24: Nada Edlibi poses for a photo next to her husband's Porsche Panamera that she took for a spin on the first day that she is legally allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia on June 24, 2018 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. 'Today is such a historical day, we've been waiting for this for such a long time,' she said. Saudi Arabia has today lifted its ban on women driving, which had been in place since 1957. The Saudi government, under Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, is phasing in an ongoing series of reforms to both diversify the Saudi economy and to liberalize its society. The reforms also seek to empower women by restoring them basic legal rights, allowing them increasing independence and encouraging their participation in the workforce. Saudi Arabia is among the most conservative countries in the world and women have traditionally had much fewer rights than men. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
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“I feel happy, relieved, I feel like I’m free,” an oncologist in Jeddah enthused, according to CNN, as she drove her husband and children around the city.

Saudi Arabian officials announced last year they would be overturning the nation’s longstanding ban on women drivers — part of a series of reforms pushed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman aimed at modernizing the Arab state. It was announced in May that the ban would officially lift on June 24.

The ban’s reversal, however, has coincided with a recent crackdown on women’s rights activists in the country. According to human rights groups, more than a dozen activists have been arrested since May, including Loujain al-Hathloul, a prominent campaigner against the driving ban. Amnesty International said on Friday that al-Hathloul, as well as at least seven other activists, are currently behind bars facing lengthy prison sentences.

“While we welcome the fact that women can finally get behind the wheel, we should not forget that many people are still behind bars for their work in fighting for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia,” Samah Hadid, Amnesty’s Middle East campaigns director, said in a statement.

Hadid added that while the lifting of the ban “is a long-overdue small step in the right direction, [it] must now be followed by reforms to end a whole range of discriminatory laws and practices,” including the country’s restrictive guardianship laws that require women to get the consent of male guardians for a variety of basic needs.

Saudi Arabia began issuing driving licenses to women in early June. By 2020, three million women in Saudi Arabia could receive licenses, according to The Guardian, citing estimates by the consultancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Social media was abuzz on Sunday with images and videos of women getting behind the wheel in Saudi Arabia for the first time. Scroll down to see a sampling of them.

This article originally appeared on HuffPost.

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