How was your commute this morning? Yeah, we know, but spare a thought for the women of Saudi Arabia. On June the 23, 2018 something amazing happened for them. For the first time ever, Saudi women won their fight to drive. At last, they could legally get behind the wheel of their own car in their own country. Something that we in the West take for granted has finally become possible for the women of this very conservative Middle Eastern country. Widely reported by the media, it was the day that many thought would never come – Saudi women finally won their fight to drive.
Of course many Saudi women will have driven in countries elsewhere and there have been protests within the Kingdom where women have taken to the streets in cars. Those protests, however, never lasted long and carried with them grave consequences – not just for the women concerned but for their husbands too.
In fact, some of the women who had been campaigners for women’s right to drive were unable to take a first proud drive, because they were still in prison. From her home in exile, activist Manal al-Sharif announced the birth of a new campaign. One that uses the miles women are now able to drive to push for the end of male guardianship laws and the release of several female activists. The women of Saudi Arabia may have won the driving rights battle but will continue to fight for true female emancipation in the Kingdom.
Husbands and other male relatives of the first female road users were filmed proudly sitting in the passenger seat as the woman in their life took to the streets in their cars. One woman was reported as shouting “The sky’s the limit, nothing can stop you!”
It is no doubt true to say that after so long in the passenger seat, there will have been some nerves amongst the new female drivers. Even so, as the clock struck midnight and the ban was officially lifted, an impressive number of women got behind the wheel in the streets of all the cities across the Kingdom.
Speed is King
It was soon reported that, in a country that has a reputation for speeding by its drivers, one woman even managed to start her driving career with a speeding ticket! A gleeful tweet from her husband boasted of the fact that his wife was the first woman ever to be clocked for speeding in Saudi Arabia. A dubious honour!
Playing to the audience
Car sellers and other motoring service sellers were quick to capitalise on a new audience. In the months leading up to the end of the ban women enthusiastically attended car shows and appreciated that the many motoring products on offer had been specifically designed with them in mind.
A surge of interest across the Kingdom caused 21 new sites to be established for swapping foreign-issued driving licences and issuing new licences.
Driving and Big Business
One of the biggest Saudi companies ARAMCO, employer of more than 60,000 men and women, has even employed an American driving instructor to teach female staff to drive. The vast compounds that ARAMCO operates are the perfect place for these driving lessons to take place. The take-up has been enthusiastic. ABC news reported the driving instructor Norma Adrianzen as saying ”I felt it became real for them the day they applied for their licenses. They all went quiet in the room, it was surreal and very emotional.”
And from the youngest at 15 to the oldest at 50 all are keen students whether or not this is the first time taking their place behind the wheel. Thousands of girls and women are expected to come forward over the next few years.
One Year On
One year on from the historical moment, what’s changed Saudi Arabia’s roads?
The expected avalanche of female motorists has failed to materialise. Just 40,000 new licence applications have been made from an estimated 10 million women who are eligible to drive.
The issue of the guardianship rules – where women are required to have the permission of a male relative before they undertake any travel, get married or undergo some medical treatments – could be part of the lack of interest. A move designed to be helpful to female drivers, some parking spots were painted with a pink outline of a woman, could have back-fired. This singling out for special treatment has not pleased everyone.
All in all, this must be seen as a step forward for the patriarchal society. As we jump into our cars today or take our own licence tests to become road users, we should perhaps spare a thought for our Saudi counterparts who have fought so hard for something we take for granted!