Women set to hit the roads

Sunday News - - FRONT PAGE -

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.

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