RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – As night falls on a deserted motor-sports circuit on the outskirts of the Saudi capital, Hanan Abdulrahman weaves through traffic cones on her black Suzuki motorcycle.
The 31-year-old in a yellow learner’s jacket has one word for what this feels like: “Freedom.”
The scene is new for conservative Saudi Arabia, where, starting in June, women will finally be allowed to drive. That right was denied uniquely to women in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi authorities have clarified that women will be permitted to drive motorcycles, vans and trucks in addition to cars. (They also cleared up a question over whether vehicles driven by women will have special plates. They will not.)
The decision to lift the driving ban, announced seven months ago, is one of the most prominent moves by the ambitious young crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, as he presses ahead with a much-trumpeted process of modernizing the kingdom.
It is a historic step, female activists say, but they point out that Saudi Arabia remains one of the world’s most restrictive countries for women. Under a system known as “guardianship,” for instance, women cannot marry or travel without the permission of a male relative.
Meanwhile, a shortage of driving schools for women, the high cost of classes and Saudi authorities’ alleged intimidation of women who campaigned for the right to drive have dulled some of the initial euphoria.
But out on the track, Abdulrahman and fellow biker Leen Tinawi, a 19-year-old Jordanian born and raised in Saudi Arabia, are focused on the task at hand.
“My friends think I’m crazy,” said Abdulrahman, a self-described adrenaline junkie and fan of extreme sports.
On weekends, the motor-sports circuit screams with drag racers and drifters getting their fix of petroleum-fueled fun in the car-obsessed country. But on Wednesday nights, the circuit is the bikers’ domain.
The two women strap on protective gear over their Harley Davidson T-shirts and jeans before their practice. In this private space, they are free to dress as they wish, but no one is sure what the requirement will be out on the road. The long robes known as abayas that Saudi women are required to wear in public are impractical for motorcycle riding, so they hope to be able to wear body-covering safety gear instead.
The women hop on their bikes. For Abdulrahman, it’s a 125cc Suzy. For Tinawi, it’s a 250cc Honda called Honey. They maneuver through the orange cones and practice U-turns under the floodlights before following their Ukrainian instructor, Elena Bukaryeva, 38, aboard a Harley, out onto the track.
Abdulrahman learned to drive at age 14, taught off-road by her father in the hopes that one day she would be able to get a license of her own. He was particularly happy at the news that women would finally be allowed to drive.
“It was a weeklong party at my house,” Abdulrahman said.
For others though, celebrations were short-lived. The women who tirelessly campaigned for ending the ban — some even serving jail time for their protests — say they have been forbidden to comment, even positively, on the move. The last thing authorities in monarchical Saudi Arabia want, they say, is to give the impression that activism can bring about change.
Hatoon al-Fassi, a Riyadh-based professor of women’s history who has campaigned for the right to drive, said her celebrations of the ban being lifted were cut short. “A few hours after that joyful event, I received a call asking me not to give any interviews or say anything on social media,” she said.
Other women received similar calls from people they say were security officials, she said.
The road to getting on the road has been a long one for Saudi women. Until 1990, it was not technically illegal for women to drive in Saudi Arabia, but there was an unwritten code that they should not. That year, 47 women got behind the wheel and took to the streets to protest. After just over an hour convoying around Riyadh, they were arrested, then were freed to their male guardians within 24 hours.
In 2011, when the region was in the throes of the Arab Spring, the Women2Drive campaign got underway with women posting to social media pictures and video footage of themselves driving. High-profile efforts resumed in 2013, and the following year, Loujain al-Hathloul was detained for more than two months after trying to drive into the country from the United Arab Emirates. She was detained again last year.
Two years ago, the crown prince unveiled “Vision 2030,” a program that aims to diversify Saudi Arabia’s oil-dependent economy and modernize the country. Mohammed has also pledged to quash religious extremism, which has flourished in the country since the late 1970s.
And some changes have come. The government withdrew powers of arrest from the religious police, who are mandated to promote virtue and stamp out vice with patrols in public places.
In one Riyadh cafe, groups of men and women sit unsegregated as music plays on the patio — a scene unthinkable just a few years ago. And this month, the kingdom’s first cinema in 30 years opened, also not segregated.
Some guardianship restrictions have been eased, with a woman supposedly no longer needing permission from a male relative to use many government services, get a job or start a business. But in practice, the permission of a guardian is often still requested.
The Saudi leadership had long suggested it could not undertake reforms because of the influence of conservative religious figures.
Those clerics — some of whom had warned that driving could lead women into sinful acts or could even harm their fertility — have fallen silent. One cleric who criticized the lifting of the ban was promptly suspended from preaching after saying that women should not drive because they have only half a brain — and a quarter after shopping.
“Basically, there was no courage, no resolve to confront it,” said Sheikh Muhammad bin Abdul Karim Issa, a prominent face of Mohammed’s “moderate” Islam. “The voices of resistance are defeated.”
But activists complain that the prince’s reforms have come hand-in-hand with a clampdown on intellectuals and campaigners.
“They are punishing those that called for this so you won’t have a thriving community pressing for change,” said Hala al-Dosari, a fellow at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute and campaigner for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. She wondered why else activists, whose aims seem to converge with those of the country’s leadership, remain in jail. Saudi Arabia is interested only in “top down” reform, she said.
Driving lessons are costly and available only in large cities, raising concerns that women outside the educated urban elite will be left behind.
“Certain women from certain circles have always had privileges others haven’t,” Dosari said. “The disparity will be increased,” she said. “Women in remote areas, women who are well-educated but face social restrictions, women who are less well-off, they need to be included.”
Women who do not already hold foreign driver’s licenses are required to enroll in training courses. At Princess Nourah University in Riyadh, which has one of just five schools offering driving lessons, 20 hours of practical instruction costs about $700.
A woman who can drive but does not have a license is required to take six hours of instruction, the Interior Ministry said. It said the same rule will be applied to men.
“Everything is going as planned,” the Interior Ministry said in a statement.
However, some women are campaigning online against the high cost of lessons, with calls for women to begin driving in June without licenses, risking a $40 fine.
“We don’t want women driving to be another way of exploiting women economically for the state,” said Fassi, the professor. Lessons should be free, she said. “We need to be compensated for what we’ve gone through.”
Some Saudis have been wary of the changes.
“It’s totally new, so the people aren’t accepting it yet,” Abdullah al-Dosari, 21, said of women driving, as he sat with his cousins outside a coffee shop in southern Riyadh. He has reservations about his sisters driving, he said, and his father would not allow it.
Safia Ameen, 40, took issue with the mixing of men and women, for instance, at the new movie theaters, but had no problem with women driving. She said it was preferable to traveling in a car with a male driver who was not a relative. Moreover, many families have been forced to stretch their household budgets to pay for live-in drivers.
At the motorcycle school, run by the Bikers Skills Institute, about 70 women initially signed up for lessons. But so far, only three have turned up. Some women even paid the fee of 1,500 riyals (about $400) but did not show.
“Maybe their families were against it,” said Bukaryeva, the instructor and wife of the school’s owner.
Abdulrahman said her family has been supportive, but she does not discuss driving, let alone motorcycle riding, with colleagues at work. “You feel some people have a negative idea, but we try not to talk about it,” she said.
She said she is nervous about the reactions she might encounter on the streets in June. But she doesn’t think much about the notion that she is making history.
“It’s just about challenging myself,” Abdulrahman said. “It’s about going out of my comfort zone and being there.”