Saudi women start driving into what they hope will be a better future
They might be getting some basic freedoms, but they worry whether their better world will last
On a stretch of farmland on the outskirts of the Saudi Arabian capital Riyadh, Rania sits nervously in the driving seat of her colleague’s car. She puts the Nissan into gear and revs the engine before finally checking her blind spot and moving off, closely following her male companion’s instructions.
It may seem a rather mundane activity, but for the 40-year-old bank worker and mother of three it is the first time she has been behind the wheel of a car in her country.
As part of sweeping reforms, the royal court ruled that women will legally be allowed to drive from June 17 — lifting a long-standing ban which had become a symbol of the oppression of women in the ultra-conservative kingdom. Driving centres are due to open from March, but women eager to learn are already making secret trips to the desert.
“I am not worried about being caught; you just have to pick places the government won’t feel threatened or disobeyed,” Rania, who asked that her surname not be published, said. “Anyway, I’ve been waiting too long to waste another minute.”
She has struggled to get around since her divorce from her husband a few years ago. “My eldest son has been driving me since he turned 16 three months ago,” she said. “The situation is ridiculous. Being a woman isn’t some sort of disability.”The raft of economic, political and social reforms in Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s “Vision 2030” plan for Saudi’s future are the most significant to affect women in a generation. When The Sunday Telegraph visited Riyadh last week, women were already shopping for cars in the city’s many showrooms and signing up for lessons at the new women-only driving school at Princess Nourah Bint Abdulrahman University.
Ride-hailing apps Uber and Careem also announced that they would begin hiring women in Saudi Arabia for the first time this summer.
The ban has been strictly enforced since a religious fatwa was issued in 1990. In a recent defence of the edict, one conservative cleric claimed driving damaged women’s ovaries and distracted them from motherhood.
For decades, the restriction has kept Saudi women largely out of the workforce and, in some cases, confined to their homes. A few dozen activists took part in driving protests in 1990, and a second wave in 2011 and 2013, ending in either their arrest or imprisonment.
However, the small but public acts of defiance sparked what has today become a fully-fledged women’s rights movement. Women from all over Saudi have begun mobilising on Twitter and other social media platforms. Saudi Arabia has the highest number of Twitter users in the Arab world — more than five million of the country’s 32 million population.“NGOs are banned, so for many women it is their only available outlet,” said Loujain al-Hathloul, a prominent Saudi activist who has twice been jailed for attempting to drive in the kingdom. “It is incredibly satisfying to see the voices of these women finally being heard.”
But the House of Saud was not about to let women like Hathloul take the credit for one of the kingdom’s greatest international PR coups. “I got a call from an official in the secret service 30 minutes before the announcement, threatening me, telling me not to comment either positively or negatively, otherwise I would be subject to interrogation,” she said. Instead, she Tweeted “Alhamdulillah”, Arabic for “Praise be to God”. “I couldn’t comment directly about it, but I still had a desire to say something,” said Ms Hathloul, who is followed by more than 300,000 people on the site.
Some see the reforms as a rare victory for activism in the kingdom. Madeha al-Ajroush, a leading figure in the women’s rights cause, believes the liberalisation was driven by a more complex combination of factors.
“There was international pressure to modernise, but also pressure from within,” Ajroush, 64, said. “The current system is unsustainable. Women make up 50% of society but the majority were shut out of the workplace. The crown prince knew we could not survive the financial crisis without having women participate in the economy, which is no longer just based on oil.”
Low oil prices have limited government jobs, and the kingdom is now trying to push more citizens, including women, into private sector employment in a bid to diversify.
Hathloul was voted the third-most-powerful Arab woman by Forbes in 2015, but was forced to quit her job that same year after it became too impractical. Her husband, a well-known Saudi comedian who acts as her male guardian, was often out of the country and she was having to take taxis to and from work.
“The Uber and Careem applications would take more than 30% of my salary. For instance, I would pay 2,000-3,000 riyals a month to get around, while my salary was 6,000 riyals,” she said.
Many in the kingdom say society has been ready to modernise for some time, but political will has lagged behind. And in an absolute monarchy, change must come from the top down.
“We are so happy for our wives to drive, I can tell you — we have been ready for quite a while,” Faisal al-Majrashi, a government employee from Riyadh, said. “In Riyadh and Jeddah, we are liberal, well-connected and we want what we see the rest of the world has.”
But there are still some deeply conservative parts of the country, including the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, that remain resistant to the reforms. Ajroush predicts women from stricter, patriarchal families are unlikely to start driving when the ban is lifted, at least not immediately.
“I’m one of the lucky ones, who has a male guardian — my husband — who is a feminist and wants to see me empowered,” said Ajroush.Shares in Saudi billionaire Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal’s Kingdom Holding surged on Sunday after he was released following three months of detention. The share price of the company, 95% of which is owned by Prince Al-Waleed, rose the maximum allowed 10% at the start of the week’s trading, regaining its level from before the arrest. The share price dropped sharply when Prince Al-Waleed was arrested in November in an anti-corruption drive by the government, but had partially regained some of the losses. Prince Al-Waleed was the most high-profile detainee among 350 suspects rounded up, including business tycoons and ministers, who were held in Riyadh’s luxury Ritz-Carlton hotel. The prince was released following an undisclosed financial agreement with the government,Shares soar as prince is freed
Shares in Saudi billionaire Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal’s Kingdom Holding surged on Sunday after he was released following three months of detention. The share price of the company rose the maximum allowed 10%, regaining its level from before the arrest. The share price dropped sharply when Prince Al-Waleed was arrested in November in an anti-corruption drive by the government.Al-Waleed was the most high-profile detainee among 350 suspects rounded up. The prince was released following an undisclosed financial agreement with the government. - AFP