Drive forward: Female cabbies in Saudi Arabia

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Saudi women take part in a training program for new female drivers at Careem, a chauffeur driven car booking service, at their Saudi offices in Al-Khobar. — AFP

By Anuj Chopra

HUNCHED over platters of dates and Arabic coffee, Saudi women raring to drive once the royal decree on it becomes effective next June signed up for another revolution — to be the Kingdom’s first female cab drivers.

Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman last month decreed that women will be allowed driving permits, a historic reform that could put not just millions of women behind the wheel but potentially many more into the workforce.

Sensing a lucrative opportunity, ride-hailing company Careem says it plans to hire up to 100,000 female chauffers to lure new clients in the gender-segregated kingdom.

This week, the company invited AFP to its first recruitment session in the coastal city of Al-Khobar, which attracted a diverse crowd — from housewives to working women — who already have foreign driving licenses.

“For years I felt helpless. My car would be parked outside and I could not drive,” said Nawal Al-Jabbar, a 50-year-old mother of three, sipping coffee from a thimble-sized cup.

A chorus of hoots and claps erupted in the auditorium as the women, who learned about the recruitment by word-of-mouth, watched news footage on a projector screen of last month’s royal decree.

“It felt like we had woken up in a new Saudi Arabia,” Jabbar said.

An instructor stood next to the screen, holding up a smartphone to show the inner workings of the app.

The firm plans to add a new “Captinah” button to the app next June that would allow customers to choose women chauffeurs. The option will only be available to other women and families, Careem spokesman Murtadha Alalawi said.

Around 30 women registered for the event in Al-Khobar.

Many arrived unaccompanied by men, something not commonly seen in a country where male “guardians” have arbitrary authority to make crucial decisions on behalf of women.

‘Rite of passage’

“This is a rite of passage for women,” said Sarah Algwaiz, director of the women chauffeurs program at Careem, referring to the reform.

“For women to drive their own cars signals autonomy, mobility and financial independence.”

“Society portrays women to be strong when it’s convenient and weak when it’s convenient,” said trainee Jabbar.

“I say if you can depend on a female doctor to deliver a baby, then you can depend on a woman to drive a car.”

Becoming a chauffeur would mean “extra income”, said Banain Al-Mustafa, a 24-year-old medical lab technician who obtained her license while she was studying in West Virginia in 2015.

“I drove for two-and-a-half years,” she said, including once on her own in a nine-hour road trip from New York to West Virginia.

“If I can drive there, why not in my own country?”

Cultural backlash

The reform is in line with the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 program that seeks to elevate women to nearly one-third of the workforce, up from about 22 percent now.

Authorities have highlighted the economic benefits of the reform as the Kingdom reels from a protracted oil slump; Saudi families would no longer need foreign chauffeurs, often a major source of financial strain.

Riyadh is moving to bring female driving instructors from abroad, local media reported, and Princess Nourah University said it will inaugurate a women’s only driving school.

Careem’s rival, Uber, is reportedly planning a similar initiative to recruit female drivers.

The new Careem recruits in Al-Khobar were seemingly unperturbed by pockets of resistance from men or sexist comments on social media over women driving.

“Look at how women’s abayas have evolved — different styles and colors — despite strong resistance,” Jabbar said, referring to the traditional black gown.

“After a while, even women drivers will become a new normal.” — AFP


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