As Indian kids in Saudi Arabia in the 1990s, we spent a lot of time in cars. In the suburban city of Al Khobar, driving was the only way to get anything done. Saudi had limited public transport, and the distances were too far to cover on foot, especially when temperatures rose up to 48 degrees Celsius. Driving was as crucial as having a roof over your head.
But the law had decided that driving was exclusively a man’s privilege. It remained so until last month, when Saudi’s millennial crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, lifted the world’s last ban on women drivers.
My father moved to Al Khobar, Saudi Arabia, in 1990. My mother, my elder sister, and I joined him two years later. The new country wasted no time in establishing its rule over us. At the airport, photographs of Hindu gods were tossed into immigration trash. Aai’s first purchase was an abaya, which became her daily accessory. Her radius of mobility was limited, as she couldn’t walk two blocks alone without a permission letter from my father.
Baba carried a family photo in his wallet, as a proof of identity. Last week, Aai showed me the creased picture, which she produced from a pile of old letters. It’s a studio picture taken against a dreary blue background: my mother and sister have blank stares for the camera, I look comically confused.
Native Saudi families typically consisted of a man and his wives, their children, and a driver. Every house would have at least two cars, one for the man, and the other for the wives. The driver would be on call for the women. But expat Indian families could not afford a driver in the early 1990s. The day his driver’s licence and the keys to a white Toyota Cressida arrived, Baba became the only way we could access the outside world.
Soon after settling in, my parents and their friends founded a Maharashtra Mitra Mandal in Al Khobar. That restored a sense of community — we celebrated birthdays and anniversaries, shopped for wholesale groceries, became babysitters on call, and tutored each other in Arabic as well as Bharatanatyam.
An important function of this community was to offer carpooling help. My father and his friend alternated between driving four kids to school before work and dropped us home during their (two-hour) lunchbreak. The more kids and bags of groceries that fit into the car, the fewer trips they’d have to make in the day.
My father spent a considerable number of hours a day hanging out in parking lots. Al Khobar had one “women’s only” shopping mall, with the Estée Lauder and Victoria’s Secret stores being manned by saleswomen only. My mother would rush us through the kid stores before we joined my father outside.
As he drove, my father had to keep a strict eye on the traffic rules, because road penalties for expats were prohibitive and harsh. Aai would take care not to offend any Muttawas, the Saudi religious police who enforced the state’s law on attire and segregation with ruthlessness. Dressed in Arab robes, with red-and-white checkered scarves over their own heads, they detained women and men who were socialising, women who had not covered their heads, or who were simply loitering around. My mother recalls the few times the Muttawas asked my father to ensure his wife’s headscarf was in place. Since we were not Arabs, we were spared harsher repercussions. Small offenses could have you arrested or detained, bigger offenses and you could be held in custody for weeks.
The people who filled your gas, handed you food, drove you around, bagged your groceries, manned traffic lights, were all men. It was Margaret Atwood’s Republic of Gilead come true. Women filled only two jobs: nurses and schoolteachers. But, of course, they would still need to be driven to work and back.
Sometimes, we would catch sight of homeless beggars on the streets, all women, covered in black abayas and crouched over the pavements, crippled by more than just poverty. Social gatherings of more than four people were banned, and groups broken up quickly by the patrolling police.
My sister and I often wonder how the idea of growing up in a man’s world influenced our adult lives. It would have been stranger if not for the image of our mother, who after we moved back to India, spent the next few years ferrying us around Pune on our rickety Luna, braving its traffic daily. As women in Saudi, however, we were permanent passengers in the back seat. Even if an uncle was travelling with us, he would have the honour of sitting in the front with Baba.
Nevertheless, most of us found a way to sneak in our culture, and breathe the cool air of rebellion. In the houses of a family who lived in a gated community, we’d celebrate Diwali, Eid, Ganeshotsav quietly, filling the same car seats with dabbas of homemade pharal, chaklis, laddoos and hand-rolled pani puri.
Inside the gates of our neighbourhood, the sultry Al Khobar turned into a Western oasis with manicured lawns watered by zippy sprinklers, walked upon by women dressed in shorts and skirts. The women would drive their cars around the compound and till the gate, when they would switch seats with the driver. But the ban ended up constraining us in more ways than one. Without the right of mobility, women had no privacy, or personal space or financial independence.
Today, Aai doesn’t particularly address the what-ifs. When my sister was old enough to start wearing the abaya herself, my parents had had enough. We moved back to India in 1997, and my mother got her life back.
We never went back to Saudi. Over the years, of the families who lived there, some stayed while others returned. Some would send news of change; women were working, it was a better life. In the last two years, cinema halls opened up in Saudi for men and women, and male guardianships were abolished, allowing women to start businesses and work in private sectors.
One of my favourite Saudi aunts just moved back to India after 30 years in the country — about 700,000 expats have reportedly left the Saudi in the past 15 months largely owing to an expat tax. After living through decades of house arrest, she regrets missing the historic moment of freedom. Her friends told her of that wondrous, impossible sight: under an arch on the streets of Al Khobar, a rally of women drove out in their cars, to hoots and cheers.