Saudi women join country’s ‘driving’ force

  • How much will the lifting of a ban accelerate progress?

After decades of forcibly obliging the country’s ban on women to drive, Saudi girls are now behind the wheels. It has been a year of anxious waiting since the Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s announcement to end the restriction. For most women in Saudi Arabia, it marks the beginning of a new wave of freedom. It may also trigger a push for more liberties, since from dress code to domestic rights, life in this Middle Eastern country as a woman is by no means easy.

In Saudi Arabia, the custodian of the two holiest cities of Islam, women are forbidden by law to appear in public without a long abaya, which covers their entire body and a headscarf, while in most cities, even their face is required to be covered. Consent from a male guardian is also required for women to rent an apartment, open a bank account, undergo a medical procedure – to name a few. Until recently, they could not go outside even for an activity as basic as grocery shopping without a male guardian accompanying them and mixed gatherings were out of question.

But winds of change have started blowing across the sand dunes of Saudi Arabia, since the Crown Prince has introduced quite a few social reforms in his otherwise conservative societal country. Cinemas have opened, women have been allowed to enjoy sports events in stadiums as an audience. Tourism opportunities are being expanded. Experts believe that all these steps are part of Muhammad bin Salman’s plan to veer the economy from its reliance on oil.

The move to end ban on women driving in particular, could add as much as $90 billion to economic output by 2030, according to Bloomberg Economics, which forecasts increase in number of women seeking jobs, boosting the size of the workforce and lifting overall incomes and output.

Saudi Arabia may not be the only country where in the name of religion, culture and tradition, many of the rights listed above are denied to women. But the violations there are glaring

Al Arifi was the first woman to register as ride-hailing app Uber’s driver in Saudi Arabia and her first fare was also a woman. In September, Uber is expected to launch a pilot program that will allow its female drivers the choice of selecting only female passengers.

When Saudi Arabia ended its status as the last country on earth to prohibit women from taking to the wheel, it was a jubilant affair. Women who had been granted licences started their engines, some with fathers or brothers alongside, and others in new cars bought for the occasion. Several women shouted with delight. Others cried, and many more took videos of their first forays at the wheel. Police officers gave them flowers and fathers gave their blessings. While the wait has been long, it is also a story of remarkable resilience and courage.

Only about a week before the announcement of the lifting of the ban, women in Saudi Arabia were labelled as ‘having half intellect’ and being too dim witted to drive a car by seemingly highly intelligent men. Many women, in their struggle to fight the ban, had to suffer tragic losses.

In 1990, fifteen women with international driving licenses cruised around Riyadh in their cars until stopped by the religious police. They were detained, lost their jobs and were labelled ‘harlots’ in clerics’ sermons. In 2005, when a male member of the Consultative Council suggested that the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia be reconsidered, he was accused of encouraging women mixing with men and ‘being driven by carnal instincts.’ In famous incidents, Manal Al-Sharif and Loujian al-Hathloul were arrested for driving a car, with the former having emigrated to Canada and writing a memoir Daring to Drive. Manal cried when she heard that her daring drive more than six years ago, which made her lose her job and right to custody to her son, will no more be illegal.

If women in Saudi Arabia are able to steer their life with decisions of their own in the future, coming generations may be more enlightened and balanced. But what of those who have already spent their lives waiting for a revolution to come?

Jean Sasson, an American writer, became well known during the 90s for authoring biography of an Al-Saud princess in a series of books. It was claimed in these books, that the royal princesses were subjected to forced marriages, marital rape and had to bear witness to fellow women being executed for ‘sexual misconduct’. It was also a norm in their families for men to keep sex slaves, which even women accept as that being the right of a man.

In an essay titled Culture is not an excuse for oppressing women, Sweden’s foreign minister Margot Wallström questions that ‘If sexual violence can be rationalised as inevitable, just imagine the other forms of domination over women that are accepted or seen as unavoidable consequences of culture.’ The ‘other forms of domination’ include women and girls not having the right to education, to work, to marry whom they want, to divorce, to run businesses, to open bank accounts and not to be able to represent themselves where decisions are made that affect them—in government, parliament, local assemblies, businesses and organisations.

Saudi Arabia may not be the only country where in the name of religion, culture and tradition, many of the rights listed above are denied to women. But the violations there are glaring. The lifting of a ban may be crucial but is only a stepping stone. Only when each and every right which a man enjoys in the country is also granted to a woman will she experience freedom as a complete human being.

Saudi woman Aseel Al-Hamad, the first female member of the Saudi Arabian Motorsport Federation, marked the end of the Saudi Arabia’s longstanding driving ban on women by driving an F1 car ahead of the French Grand Prix. She hopes that her role in the race would inspire other Saudi women, showing them ‘what you can do if you have the passion and spirit to dream’. It is this passion and spirit to dream and not mere removal of restrictions, that will one day enable the Saudi woman to put her life in forward mode and accelerate the pace of her progress.