It was in the air for some time, that there were going to be big changes in Saudi Arabia. I have lived here for over ten years. In this time, as Saudis and the world talked about “allowing” women to drive, there would be a buzz every now and then that a “certain” announcement was imminent, and that it would take place on such and such a date. The rumoured date would come and go, with nothing to say for itself.
But this time it was different. And the first whiff of it came on September 23, the Saudi National Day, the country’s 87th founding day.
The celebration was unprecedented, and it seemed like the precursor to a big shift. As a laser extravaganza beamed the country’s high points on the glass façade of Kingdom Tower that dominates the skyline in downtown Riyadh, the unthinkable was happening: the images of Lubna Al Omair and Sarah Attar – the first Saudi women to participate in the Olympics — were up there for all to see, without the abaya. (In July 2017, the government reversed its longstanding ban on sports for girls in public schools; it had been permitted in private schools in 2013. It was only in February this year that permission was given for women’s gyms and fitness centres.)
As if seeing the images of two women up on that building, without the mandatory black cloth was not a shock enough, more was in store. In a country where there is no public entertainment in the form of music, drama or the like, the new General Authority for Entertainment rolled out unprecedented “public entertainment” on hip Tahila Street in Riyadh. I was there with friends. There was street art, fashion shows, and theatricals.
Television channels showed programs that featured young Saudi girls in white dresses with belts in green – the color of the national flag.
In Jeddah, women were invited to the King Fahd sports stadium for the first time to attend the celebrations with their families, opening up a previously male-only venue.
The Arab News reported: ‘’…this marks a shift from previous celebrations in the kingdom where women are effectively barred from sports arenas by strict rules on segregation of the sexes in public. This measure represents another step into relaxing some norms as part of its “Vision 2030” plan for economic and social reforms.”
“It is the first time I have come to the stadium and I feel like more of a Saudi citizen. Now I can go everywhere in my country,” said 25-year-old Sultana, green and white flags painted on both cheeks as she entered the stadium with her girlfriends. “God willing, tomorrow women will be permitted bigger and better things like driving and travel.”
Unbelievably, her wish came true. On the night of September 26, Saudi National Television announced that Saudi women would be permitted to drive.
The world – and Saudi women — hooted and tweeted and posted comments in utter delight. We were aflutter. It was a night of excitement. There was jubilation on social media. Trending Arabic hashtags launched just a few seconds after the announcement included #KingBacksWomenDrive and #WomenDrive. #SaudiWomenCanDrive.
Manal alSharif, an activist who has long campaigned for the right to drive jubilantly tweeted, “Congratulations to all the men and women who fought to end the ban and never gave up.”
It was an iconic, historic moment. The only country in the world where women did not so far have the right to drive, was now changed. Overnight , the world had become a bit different.
As I walked in to office the next morning, my colleagues – men and women alike – were agog at the news. While the inevitable jokes and memes flooded our smartphones, the excitement and anticipation of this new phase was palpable. Discussions with HR on the new kinds of policies that needed to be put in place; allowances and car loans; the re-arranging of the car park!
My young Saudi girl-friends talked excitedly about the kind of car they would buy: Should it be a sports car or an SUV? The road trips they would make, the adventures they would have! The slightly older married woman gently explained that she, on the other hand, would wait and see. Yes, of course, she would get her license, but most certainly also retain her family driver. My expatriate woman friend exclaimed more colourfully that she would wait to see how “road happy” Saudi men would react to sharing space with women before venturing out.
The men joked about how they needed a raise. With their wives, independent on wheels – well what do you expect? More shopping! And the insurance and the auto repair expenses after every crash. They shared pictures of the kinds of cars they thought women would want – pink ones, cars shaped like designer handbags or stiletto hee
ls, cars with an inbuilt vanity case. Much laughter!
The Twitter meltdown, after the announcement, was interesting. As euphoric and congratulatory as the messages were, there was, of course, the inevitable resistance. The hashtag #thepeopleagainstwomendriving surfaced, reminding us that Saudi Arabia remains an extremely conservative society where the male is expected to be able to provide for his family’s requirements – and the women expected to rely on him.
One tweet summed up this sentiment: “I don’t care what the announcement says, the only girls who will drive are the ones with no real men in their lives. End of story.”
Well, no. Beginning of story.
At my workplace, we discussed whether women would also be allowed to drive two wheelers? If so, would they be permitted to be hired for delivery roles. And what if they are stranded while on duty in their vehicle?
There were so many other questions: Will women be permitted to drive professionally (Careem, the Saudi cab app booking service has potentially welcomed women to their team)? Will driving schools be mixed or segregated? What about protocols for dealing with accident response? Would they need permissions to apply for licenses?
Certainly, the new changes will be aligned with existing Saudi norms. King Salman has constituted a Committee to make comprehensive recommendations for guidelines and their implementation, within 30 days. Women can take to their wheels from June next year.
A prominent Saudi citizen told me, “Saudis are a very adaptable society. In a few months all this will fall in place.”
I was struck by how true his words were. One doesn’t normally think of Saudi society as adaptable. But having lived here for more than a decade, I have been witness to some changes, slowly but surely — in the Employment Fairs for women, where ladies throng to submit their CV’s, or the multihued abayas that one now sees on the roads, or of young married couples walking hand in hand in malls, ladies working the cash counters in supermarkets, of the many restaurants where there is no segregation and loud music plays in the back ground, of the thriving scuba diving community in the west coast, of Kareena Kapoor smiling down the malls in the advertisements for cable movies , or Saudi Tourism that is making recreational travel within Saudi a stunning reality.
The issue of women driving in Saudi society is complex. With the newer generation being globally mobile and with the ascent of social media (Saudi Arabia has the highest per capita usage of You Tube in the world, and 4.57 million active twitter users), the desire and the demand for women to drive had grown stronger by the day. But the opposition was tremendous, and it was powerful, even if the reasoning was absurd. A cleric even said that driving destroys a woman’s ovaries!
The fight to drive by Saudi women is almost 25 years old – in the 90s a group of women drove in the streets of Riyadh and were arrested for their labour. Film maker Wajeha al-Huwaider and Manal al Sharif, in 2007, petitioned King Abdullah for the right to drive. In 2008, on International Women’s Day, she filmed herself driving, and the YouTube video received widespread global attention. In 2011, Manal al-Sharif started a Facebook campaign named “Teach me how to drive so I can protect myself ‘or Women2Drive. As Manal Sharif said after the ban was lifted: “The rain begins with a single drop.”
There will be larger economic ramifications. The labor ministry has been pushing corporates to hire more women but transportation was always an issue. In the absence of a public transportation system, companies provided transport or women were reliant on their male family members to drop and pick them up. Families who could, hired drivers, at a cost of around $1000 a month, a sum beyond the reach of many.
Women at the wheel will mean more women at work. It will not just help household budgets, there will be a spike in demand for automobiles, insurance and related services while bringing in revenue by way of licenses.
In my Indoor Cycling class, that evening, we talked about how, in a few months, we could be cycling outdoors instead of simulated exercises. The Instructor said: “I am so happy. I am so satisfied. I could not sleep. It’s a huge step. It will be confusing in the beginning. Just don’t give up. You are witnessing history girls!”
We raised a cheer, this group of women from all over the world, and sang a hurrah.
The wonders didn’t end. Soon after the simultaneous announcement in the Saudi national media and in a media event in Washington, Fatimah Baeshan was appointed as the first female spokesperson for the Saudi Embassy in Washington. And even more incredibly, Saudi Airlines, the national carrier, announced scholarships for women to train as pilots. Go, girls.