No men allowed: Saudi Arabia's first women only car showroom opens months after they get the right to drive in the kingdom

  • Women will be allowed to drive themselves in Saudi Arabia from June following a 30-year prohibition 
  • King Salman announced a change to the rules in September following a campaign by female activists  
  • As well as allowing women to drive, they will be able to attend sports event in separate areas of the stadium

A Saudi private company on Thursday opened the first car showroom for women only just five months before a decision allowing females to drive takes effect.

The showroom was opened in a shopping mall in the western Red Sea port city of Jeddah to allow women the freedom to choose their own cars before they hit the road.

In a historic decision late last year, King Salman gave Saudi women the right to drive, abolishing an almost three-decade ban based on religious reasons.

Saudi Arabia's first car show room for women has opened in the Red Sea port of Jeddah 

Saudi Arabia's first car show room for women has opened in the Red Sea port of Jeddah 

Last September, King Salman announced he was reversing the ban on women driving 

Last September, King Salman announced he was reversing the ban on women driving 

From June Saudi women will be entitled to take to the roads following the decision

From June Saudi women will be entitled to take to the roads following the decision

The showroom offers a wide selection of vehicles from various makes and is staffed by women only.

It also provides women with solutions to finance their purchase provided by leading banks and financial companies.

The company plans to open more automobiles showrooms for women in the oil-rich kingdom. 

Saudi Arabia announced in September that it would finally lift a ban on women driving , becoming the last country in the world to allow women to get behind the wheel. 

Activists had been arrested for driving since 1990, when the first driving campaign was launched by women who drove cars in the capital, Riyadh.

In June, the kingdom plans to begin issuing licenses to women, even allowing them to drive motorcycles, according to local reports. 

It will be a huge change for women who have had to rely on costly male drivers or male relatives to get to work or school or to run errands and visit friends. 

Manal al-Sharif was one of the leading campaigners against the ban. She said she was an 'accidental activist' and now wants the Kingdom to abolish the system of male guardianship. 

She told AFP: 'There is no time for us to be silent anymore.' 

Ms al-Sharif has written a memoir, 'Daring to Drive' about her campaign. 

She said: 'Speak up, that is the only way to bring awareness and change things in Saudi Arabia.'

In a country that adheres to strict gender segregation and an austere vision of Islam, the guardianship system requires Saudi women to get permission from a designated male family member on anything from travel to enrolling at university.

Like the driving ban, the male guardianship 'has stopped a lot of women from pursuing their dreams', said Sharif, who has drawn comparisons with the late US civil rights activist Rosa Parks.

To show how serious she is about her new campaign, Sharif rolls back her sleeve to reveal a plastic blue bracelet that reads 'I am my own guardian', alongside a picture of a car.

'We are not minors. We are capable of driving our own lives.' 

In her book, Sharif charts her unexpected journey to rebellion, culminating in her arrest after she filmed herself driving and posted the video on YouTube as part of the 'Woman2Drive' campaign in 2011.

Charged with 'driving while female', she spent nine days in jail in a case that sparked global uproar.

With unflinching honesty, Sharif recounts the hardships she faced growing up in relative poverty in Saudi Arabia's holiest city Mecca and the struggles she encountered later on as a divorced single mother.

She credits her strict parents with pushing her to excel academically, but also expresses anger over the painful female genital mutilation she had to endure as a child and the domestic abuse she suffered at home, as well as at the hands of her first husband.

She admits to succumbing to radicalism in her youth, even burning her brother's Backstreet Boys cassettes in what she calls her 'extremist days', because she believed they were 'haram' or forbidden under Islam.

She said: 'In this book I was very open, I tried to break every single taboo that I could.'

Her top grades eventually led her to become the first female information security specialist at the Saudi national oil company Aramco, where women are allowed to drive within the firm's compound.

But trying to get around outside as a woman 'who had no man in her life' was a constant battle, forcing her to rely on her brother, colleagues or taxi drivers.

One day, after failing to find a ride after a doctor's appointment, she decided to walk home alone. But a car followed her along the way, leaving her terrified - and fed up.

Emboldened by the Arab Spring sweeping through the region at the time, she decided enough was enough. It was time to drive.

'So it was really a personal struggle,' Sharif said.

'It was really from the fear of being helpless in my own country.'

How Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is changing Saudi Arabia 

Saudi Arabia has laid the groundwork for momentous social and economic changes that will take place this year, defying its conservative reputation for slow, cautious reforms.

King Salman and his ambitious 32-year-old son and heir, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, have upended decades of royal family protocol, social norms and traditional ways of doing business.

They bet instead on a young generation of Saudis hungry for change and a Saudi public fed up with corruption and government bureaucracy.

Saudi Arabia will begin issuing driving licences to women this year 

Saudi Arabia will begin issuing driving licences to women this year 

There is also a need to cut a budget deficit of at 195 billion riyals ($50 billion) caused by collapsing oil prices.

The world's biggest oil exporter had previously been able to rely on income from it to spend lavishly to maintain its population's standard of living and subsidise the extravagant spending of its royal princes.

The clam down on corruption that has seen 200 officials detained, including one of King Abdullah's sons, former National Guard chief Prince Miteb bin Abdullah.

He was released last month after agreeing to pay back the government $1 billion. 

The conservative kingdom hosted Comic Con events here thousands of fans dressed up in their favorite action-hero costume

The conservative kingdom hosted Comic Con events here thousands of fans dressed up in their favorite action-hero costume

Hand-in-hand with economic reforms, the Kingdom is bringing about social changes.

A ban on women driving has been lifted and there are plans to begin issuing licenses to women, even allowing them to drive motorcycles.

This year women will also be allowed to attend sporting matches in national stadiums, where they were previously banned.

Movie theaters, shut down in the 1980s during a wave of ultraconservatism, are returning to the Kingdom.

Rapper Nelly performing in Saudi Arabia, one of many entertainers who made it to the country

Rapper Nelly performing in Saudi Arabia, one of many entertainers who made it to the country

Previously, Saudis could stream movies online, watch them on satellite TV or travel to neighboring countries like Bahrain and the UAE. 

This past year, rapper Nelly and two Games of Thrones stars came to Saudi Arabia for the first time. John Travolta also visited the Kingdom, meeting with fans and talking to them about the US film industry. 

Saudi Arabia also held two Comic Con events in major cities, where thousands of fans dressed up in their favorite action-hero costumes.

Actors Julian Glover and Charles Dance, Grand Maester Pycelle and Tywin Lannister from HBO's 'Game of Thrones', made an appearance at one as rock music blared in the halls. 

 

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