Human rights groups have denounced a recent crackdown on campaigners against the ban on women drivers.
The first driving licences to be granted to women in Saudi Arabia were issued on Monday, ahead of a nationwide lifting of the ban on June 24.
Ten women received driving licenses at the General Department of Traffic in the capital, Riyadh. All had driving licenses from foreign countries, including the UK, Lebanon and Canada. They proudly displayed their new licenses on social media.
Human rights group Amnesty International welcomed the move but blasted the government as several prominent female rights activists have recently been jailed.
“It’s welcomed that the Saudi authorities have finally issued licences to women, but the very women who campaigned for this for years are now behind bars instead of behind the wheels. The government must release then now,” Samah Hadid, Amnesty’s Middle East director of campaigns, wrote on Twitter.
In footage released by the Saudi government, the 10 women can be seen smiling as they hold their new driving licenses. They also had to take a brief driving test as well as an eye exam.
The lifting of the ban was announced in September by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman as part of a series of reforms to open up the country socially and culturally and promote a moderate form of Islam. It will come into effect on June 24 when a flood of women are expected to apply.
Until now, families would have to pay for personal drivers to ferry female members of the family around.
The reforms, including the lifting of a ban on cinema, have been widely celebrated, but campaigners point out that there's still a clamp-down on activists.
In May, several prominent activists against the ban on women drivers were arrested and jailed, including Loujain al-Hathloul.
Al-Hathloul was detained for 73 days in 2014 for attempting to drive into Saudi Arabia from the United Arab Emirates. She was also detained for four days in 2017, and denied access to lawyers and her family.
Amnesty International also denounced the persecution and smear campaign against these activists.
“Official statements in state media accused the activists and other individuals of forming a “cell” and posing a threat to state security for their “contact with foreign entities with the aim of undermining the country’s stability and social fabric,” Amnesty said in a statement.