Women set to hit the roads
RIYADH Cradling her 4-monthold daughter, Nour Obeid scans the car showroom and heads to the mid-sized SUVs.
In the past, a woman looking to buy a car in Saudi Arabia would focus on the features in the back, but Obeid is checking out the driver’s seat, picturing herself doing grocery store runs or school dropoffs.
Today, the kingdom will lift the world’s only ban on women driving, a milestone for women who have had to rely on drivers, male relatives, taxis and ridehailing services to get to work, go shopping and get around.
The government has organised a carnival to mark the occasion, including women-only road safety sessions in go-kart parks, and an all-female force of ‘‘accident inspectors’’.
The move could help to boost the Saudi economy by ensuring stronger female participation in the workforce, meaning increased household incomes.
Car companies also see an opportunity in this country of 20 million people, half of them female. Ahead of the ban being lifted, they’ve put Saudi saleswomen on showroom floors, and targeted potential new drivers with advertising and social media marketing.
Saudi Arabia is the largest automobile market in the Middle East, and car sales are expected to increase by between 6 and 10 per cent once women start driving, the chairman of the national committee for cars at the Council of Saudi Chambers told the Saudi Gazette newspaper.
Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia issued its first driver’s licences to 10 women who already had licences from other countries. Since then, dozens more have been licensed. They can’t drive until the ban is officially lifted, however.
Many Saudi women haven’t had a chance to take the gendersegregated driving courses that were first offered to women only a few months ago. There’s also a waiting list of several months for a course at Princess Nora University in Riyadh. And the classes can be costly, running to several hundred dollars.
Others already own cars driven by chauffeurs and are in no rush to drive themselves.
‘‘We were princesses . . . We were in a good place. Now we’re going to be in a better place,’’ said Maram Al-Hazer, a manager at several car showrooms, including Ford, who has two family drivers.
‘‘To be honest, everyone wants to relax and sit in the back seat and have someone to drive for them.’’
Though women don’t need a male relative’s approval to get a driver’s licence or buy a car, the moral and even financial support of a husband or father is key in this male-dominated society, where men have final say over a woman’s ability to GETTY IMAGES marry, travel abroad or obtain a passport.
Nourah Almehaize started selling cars time two months ago, but had already worked for six years in a call centre handling queries about vehicles. She’s eager to learn how to drive so she can test-drive the Ford Explorer and Edge she’s been selling to customers, but said her husband was telling her to wait.
‘‘‘‘Currently, I have a driver. After a year, I may not need him if I’ve had enough practice and I’m comfortable.’’
Obeid, who already has a licence from Jordan, plans to obtain a Saudi licence later this year.
Her husband, Mustafa Radwan, is encouraging her to drive. He says he’ll feel safer knowing that she and their two kids don’t need to rely on ridehailing services – and he’s optimistic and hopeful that Saudi men will be courteous to female drivers on the road.
Some eminently qualified drivers will be missing from the roads when the ban is lifted, however.
Aziza al-Yousef, one of the most prominent figures in the women’s driving campaign, had vowed to be the first in line to receive her licence. Instead, she and several fellow campaigners will mark the milestone from prison, having been rounded up.
Yousef is among nine people still in jail after a crackdown last month. They face 20-year sentences on charges of conspiring against the state with foreign parties. All are being held incommunicado.
Several protesters have chosen not to return from overseas after social media campaigns called for their arrest. Manal al-Sharif, the author of Daring To Drive, who lives in Australia, cancelled a celebratory return to Saudi Arabia after the arrests began.
‘‘Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ‘reform campaign’ has been a frenzy of fear for genuine Saudi reformers who dare to advocate publicly for human rights or women’s empowerment,’’ said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. ‘‘There can be no real celebration on June 24 while the women who campaigned for the right to drive and their supporters remain behind bars.’’ AP, The Times
Saudi fashion designer Eman Joharjy models an abaya, the traditional garment Saudi women wear, that she designed especially for driving. Saudi Arabia is scheduled to lift its ban on women driving, which has been in place since 1957, today.