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The long road to Eden:
Saudi women take the wheel

Saudi Arabia’s decision to allow women to drive is a small step for the kingdom but a giant leap for Saudi women, finally in the driver's seat. And men. An insider's take.

Pune, October 2017

Saudi women will be able to get a driver's licence without a male guardian's consent

Finally, Saudi women can drive, though a camel may be safer, given the Kingdom's alarming road fatality statistics.

KING Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud’s decree made headlines the world over, sending supporters, critics, cynics and car dealers into overdrive. The prohibition against women driving had long been a black mark against Saudi Arabia, the most visible and ridiculed proof of its misogyny and oppression of women. Although the consensus is that the royal decision — with the blessings of the senior clerics — is a long overdue move in the right direction, some saw it as a diversionary tactic to take citizens’ minds off the tanking economy and growing disenchantment over unpopular austerity measures. Others viewed it as politically expedient and an attempt to curry favour with Western nations. Saudi activist Hala Al-Dosari said: “This is the problem with women’s rights in Saudi Arabia — it’s always used by the political system as a negotiation card, more so than being about empowerment.”

Writing in The Wire, Talmiz Ahmad, India’s former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, notes: “The dramatic lifting of the ban on women driving is intended only to shore up the stature of the crown prince [Mohammed bin Salman], and affirm his fitness to take over from his father in the near future and rule his country for several decades. Though the announcement has been accompanied by cacophonous applause from different sides, it is obviously an organised, state-directed effort: real thinking on the ground has not yet come through and it is not certain that the game-plan will proceed with the smoothness the prince hopes for.” The crown prince’s strategy is to wean the kingdom off its dependence on oil and his Vision 2030 project envisages Saudi Arabia as “the heart of the Arab and Islamic worlds, the investment powerhouse, and the hub connecting three continents”.

Delshad Karanjia

Delshad Karanjia

The voices of dissent — all of them male — are already making themselves heard. Within days of announcing the lifting of the ban, the authorities arrested a man who threatened to attack any woman whose car breaks down. “I swear to God, I will burn her and her car.”

Regardless of the motives behind the king’s decree, it is time for Saudis to focus on the road ahead. The challenge for the kingdom lies in readjusting the construct of Saudi society which is patriarchal and male dominated, topped by the twin piques of the monarchy and the clergy. Women need permission from a male guardian (father, husband, brother or son) to marry, travel, open a bank account or get a job. At his news conference in Washington DC at which he announced the lifting of the driving ban, Prince Khalid bin Salman, the Saudi ambassador, said women would be able to obtain driver’s licenses without having to ask for permission from their male guardian. Presumably, women will still need a male guardian’s consent to control other aspects of their lives.

The voices of dissent — all of them male — are already making themselves heard. Within days of announcing the lifting of the ban, the authorities arrested a man who threatened to attack any woman whose car breaks down. “I swear to God, I will burn her and her car.” A Saudi man in Riyadh told reporters: “You can revoke the ban, but you cannot force men to allow their sisters and wives to drive. As head of my family, I make the decisions — not the women.”

Clearly, it is not going to be a smooth drive for Saudi women, who have been agitating for more than 30 years to get the ban on driving lifted. The paradigm shift — to permit women to be independent — will have to come from Saudi men.

Having lived and worked in Saudi Arabia for 14 memorable years, I grew to love the country — warts and all. I moved to Dhahran, headquarters of the oil company Saudi Aramco, in October 2001, one month after 9/11, apprehensive and not knowing what to expect from a country that appeared to have a frighteningly long list of don’ts, where even simple pleasures were proscribed. Within the first few weeks my fears vanished. The sprawling Saudi Aramco compound which houses the families of expatriate and Saudi employees is like a resort, with its own schools, restaurants, a movie theatre, supermarkets, a golf course and stables for employees to house their Arabian horses. There is a strong sense of camaraderie among its residents, newcomers are warmly welcomed and women — Saudis and expats — are allowed to drive within the walls of the gated community. To go off camp, the company provides a fleet of “shopper’s buses” that ferry employees and their dependents to shopping malls and supermarkets in the nearby towns of Al-Khobar and Ad-Dammam in the mornings and evenings.

Within the Aramco compound and elsewhere, villas and bungalows are surrounded by high walls to prevent prying eyes peering at womenfolk. Most Saudi homes have a separate entrance for women, sitting rooms for men and women within the home are segregated, and entrances to ladies’ beauty parlours are as heavily gated and secured as bank vaults. There are separate waiting rooms for men and women in hospitals and other public places, and at weddings, the reception halls for men and women are set some distance apart: the women’s “enclosure” can only be accessed with a key card similar to the ones used in hotels. Once inside the ladies’ section, head scarves and 'abayas' are removed, revealing plunging necklines, strapless gowns and haute couture of the kind that graces the pages of Vogue. Taking photographs of this fashion parade and of the ladies letting their hair down is strictly prohibited.

My first job in Dhahran was teaching English as part of Saudi Aramco Schools’ adult education program. In every class, I was impressed by the ambition, determination and drive displayed by the girls and women. It is possible that they were more outspoken and comfortable with a female teacher than the male students, but they always seemed much more motivated and forthright.

Once inside the ladies’ section, head scarves and 'abayas' are removed, revealing plunging necklines, strapless gowns and haute couture of the kind that graces the pages of Vogue. Taking photographs of this fashion parade and of the ladies letting their hair down is strictly prohibited

As happens with many expatriate women, I had a couple of run-ins with the dreaded mutawas or religious police, employees of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (CPVPV). These gentlemen patrol city streets on the lookout for anyone infringing the Saudi moral code (unrelated men and women cannot socialise) or dress protocol for women (full-length black abayas and head scarves covering the hair are mandatory), including expatriates. Gesticulating frantically, the mutawa asked me to cover my hair with my scarf. This happened only in the early years; I cannot recall any other contretemps with the religious police during the last 10 years of my stay. In 2016, the mission of the CPVPV was amended to “carrying out the duty of promoting virtue and preventing vice in a gentle and humane way”.

Over the years there were gradual but noticeable changes. Road signs which were previously mainly in Arabic began to be displayed in Arabic and English; vehicle license plates also changed from only Arabic to Arabic and English. In shopping malls, fewer Saudi women were wearing the niqab or full face covering. Their heavily made-up faces were uncovered, but their head scarves were always in place. It became common for groups of young girls and women — without their menfolk — to meet in the “family” section of coffee shops. There were also frequent sightings of single women, with only their laptops for company, dining in restaurants alone. This is something one takes for granted elsewhere in the world, but this was happening in Saudi Arabia!

More and more women were entering the workforce, and making rapid strides in their chosen fields. They were well educated, feisty and articulate. The department that I worked for was headed by a woman general manager, one of the first women to rise to that position in the company. In 2015, women were allowed to vote and to run for seats on the kingdom’s local councils. Saudi women were on the ascendant and there was no stopping them…

During my stay in the kingdom, we heard every now and again that the ban on women drivers was being lifted. A few years ago, it was rumoured that the ban would end in a phased manner — only professional women, those who did not use makeup and those aged over 40 would be allowed to drive in the kingdom. We also heard with disbelief some of the arguments against women driving — it would lead to promiscuity and the collapse of the Saudi family. In December 2016, as the movement to lift the ban was gathering pace, an official report by Professor Kamal Subhi to the Shoura Council stated that lifting the ban would cause prostitution, pornography, homosexuality, divorce and the “end of virginity”.

The satirical blog Your Daily Muslim took a potshot at this absurdity: “Subhi described his visit to a more liberal Islamic country: ‘One [woman] made a gesture that made it clear she was available… this is what happens when women are allowed to drive.’ No, Subhi, the middle finger does not mean she wants you to finger her, it means she thinks you’re a giant douchebag.”

The road accident statistics for the kingdom are grim. Citing data from the General Authority for Statistics and the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs, a report in Arab News says: “Car accidents in 2016 killed 9,031 people…with an average of over 25 deaths a day and one death an hour. The rate of increase is the highest since 2007

Jokes aside, the thing I feared more than the dreaded mutawas or the threat of a terrorist attack (warnings of imminent danger to foreigners were routinely issued to expats by their respective consulates and embassies), was the reckless driving in the kingdom. Drivers routinely disregarded speed limits, used the hard shoulder as the fastest lane on the road and showed very little courtesy to other motorists. One of the first Arabic words I learned was “shway shway” (slow down a bit), which was a plea I had to repeat endlessly to cab drivers often to no avail. Frankly, even if I had been allowed to drive, I wouldn’t have had the guts to drive outside of the Saudi Aramco compound.

The road accident statistics for the kingdom are grim. Citing data from the General Authority for Statistics and the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs, a report in Arab News says: “Car accidents in 2016 killed 9,031 people…with an average of over 25 deaths a day and one death an hour. The rate of increase is the highest since 2007.

“The number of accidents in the same year increased by 2.8 percent compared to 2015 — from 518,000 to 533,000 — causing over 38,000 injuries with an average of 4.5 injuries an hour and 103 injuries a day. Between 2006 and 2016, 78,487 people died from car accidents.”

Women drivers will be entering this maelstrom from June 2018.

Saudi Arabia’s notoriously slow and red tape-riddled bureaucracy will have its hands full in the run-up to next June, as it gears up to tackle the logistical nightmare of millions of women applying for driver’s licenses. The government will have to hire thousands of women police officers to deal with women drivers and will also have to set up driving schools with qualified female instructors. Riyadh’s Princess Nourah bint Abdulrahman University has been first off the block to announce that it will open a driving school for women.

Refresher courses for drivers who are currently a menace on the streets, well-qualified driving instructors, driver’s education for new drivers and stricter driving tests need to be introduced immediately to make Saudi roads safer. Traffic rules also need to be enforced more strictly. Traffic policemen lolling in their cars and talking on their cell phones are a common sight at intersections at which motorists are breaking every rule in the book within a few yards of the police car. To its credit, the government has taken steps to curb speeding by installing speed traps and cameras on major thoroughfares but a lot of bad driving goes unpunished because of the offender’s wasta (clout). Gulf Traffic Week is an annual event throughout the region during which the mangled remains of cars and SUVs involved in fatal accidents are displayed at street corners in an attempt to shock motorists into driving carefully.

The decision to let women drive has sent more tremors through Saudi society than the shock tactics used during Traffic Week. One can only hope that good sense and practicality will prevail over chauvinism as the women drivers of Saudi Arabia start their engines.

Delshad Karanjia began her peripatetic journalistic career with the Times Group in Bombay before heading to the UK, where she worked for newspapers (the Daily Telegraph, the Sunday Times, and BBC Publications), radio (newsreader/presenter for BBC Local Radio and BBC World Service), and television (researcher and producer on several India-centric documentaries for Channel 4). During a short stint in the US, she worked as an editor on the features section of the Houston Chronicle. She moved to Saudi Arabia in 2001 where she taught English and worked as a writer and editor in Saudi Aramco’s Training and Development organization. Now retired and settled in Pune, India, she continues to edit, write and teach.

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Maria Teresa (23 February, 2018) – United States
Hello Delshad, I was born in Dhahran 58. My father worked there for 35 years. He and my mother moved to Texas when they retired. My mother is originally from Galicia Spain. And she lives near by as do my brothers. I now live in Austin Tx where I teach design and illustration. I am creating art works for the reunion in Austin this September and came across your article while researching camels and saudi arabia images.
Thank you for the insight to Saudi and information on the changes in saudi. Shukran. Maria Teresa Alhamdulillah
Zarir Nagarwalla (6 December, 2017) – India
A very thought provoking and excellent article on the prevailing issues in Saudi Arabia. It was high time that Saudi Arabia gave their women some freedom - starting with driving - a long awaited step. Hopefully, it will open up more doors of the other types of "bans" on women's Rights to Equality.
Jasmine Carvalho (10 November, 2017) – Canada
Really well written article with observations of Saudi life and the preparation of the run-up including the hurdles to women driving is beautifully described. Since I lived there I can attest to what was written.
On another additional note, some Saudi men felt that the government was willing to trust a driver with the wife than to trust their wife which they felt was so unfair.

Good reading to
Neena Marwah (29 October, 2017) – US
Very well written article and thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Brought back great memories of living in Saudi and the Aramco camp. So important for women to start driving there.
Shireesh Nadkar (18 October, 2017) – India
An excellent and well written article about life in Saudi Arabia, especially for expatriate women.
Archana Sharma (13 October, 2017) – Inida
I had the opportunity to live in Riyadh in the mid-nineties. My one-and-a-half-year-old son used to be my male escort for my grocery shopping routines to the nearest Akaria [mall].

Got admonished by the muttawas many times for not covering my face. when I told them I was a Hindu, they yelled at me and asked me to put the DOT on my forehead! – This comment has been edited
Rafiq (9 October, 2017) – Dubai
A welcome move. Giving women more equality in the workforce via greater equality in life can only strengthen the King's hand despite the obstacles.
J Hopkins (9 October, 2017) – USA
A timely and fair presentation of the issues involved. Saudi Arabia is well behind other countries on this score.
Dileep Deshpande (8 October, 2017) – India
A clear and comprehensive description of the situation Saudi Arabia finds itself in before women drivers add to the chaos. King Salman is, presumably, bowing to the pressure of a liberalising world in, finally, letting women drive. While this is, undoubtedly, the right direction to move in, he will need to address all the other issues that will surface as a consequence.
In India, the car is usually an expensive possession and drivers exercise care to avoid accidents, the much wealthier Saudis have no such restraint.
The King will have his hands full if he wishes to bring order to the traffic!

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