Change in progress

Wheel of change

June 24, 2018
Layan Damanhouri


– For many Saudi women who were used to driving in different countries but were forced to sit in the backseat once they returned home, will now for the first time taste this freedom in their country.

Women who were able to validate their foreign driving licenses and receive local IDs are among the early firsts to drive on June 24, considered a historic day for Saudi Arabia and a turning point for Saudi society.

Since the royal decree came in a surprise announcement in September, the world has been all eyes on this date to witness a step in transformation in society.

Moreover, people have waited for rules and regulations to be issued in the following months. Only recently in the past month did the first batch of women receive driving lessons or obtain driving licenses.

For Dania Al-Ghulbi, she could not stand to wait in the long queue in Jeddah so she applied at the Makkah Traffic Department and found lesser congestion, which enabled her to quickly get her US license validated.

Like many women Saudi Gazette spoke to, driving is not only a mere transportation issue that will enable her to move about freely, it’s an empowering move. “For me, a woman who drives has an independent personality. She doesn’t depend on a man to run the course of her life.”

Al-Ghulbi, an executive assistant at a real estate company, is married and has one daughter. However, she won’t be driving to work in the first few months and chooses to wait and will start gradually to nearby places.

After studying in the US, she’s witnessed a series of changes in the Kingdom that made her life at home starting to become similar to her previous experience abroad.

“It’s about time we drive, have cinemas, and other forms of entertainment in the Kingdom,” she said. “One of the reasons I didn’t want to leave the US was the issue of driving. Now it’s different with driving along with other changes that impacted our lifestyle.”

Throughout the years, Saudi society has gone through rapid changes and waves of modernity in relatively little time for a young country. As women progressed academically, received equal scholarship opportunities as men, climbed career ladders and were sharing leadership positions with men, among other major changes in society, the youth that make a majority of the population can’t make sense of the ban on driving.

Dania’s husband Hossam Mominah, who supports women driving, said, “It’s definitely a positive step. I would rather my wife drives on her own rather than ride in a car with a stranger all the time. However, I think in the beginning, it’s going to take time to adapt with traffic.”

Commenting on the changes happening in the Kingdom, he said, “Decades ago, during our grandparents’ generation, it was already an open society where society was more liberated. We’re returning to that time.”

The lift of ban on driving represents a major shift in the direction of the country, one of openness, tolerance as well as a campaign to get rid of wrong misinterpretations of Islam that were monopolized by an ultra-conservative segment.

Lifting the ban on Sunday would not only be enabling women’s independence, but it would also be symbolic for ending radicalism in the country, as Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman earlier this year proclaimed in a televised interview that initiated for months a debate among millions of Saudis on defining tolerant Islam that would allow a liberal society.

Allowing men and women to mix in public, increasing women’s participation in the workforce, and other forms of empowerment are considered by citizens as a new Saudi Arabia, receiving news of changes with a sense of patriotism.

Nonetheless, many said they’re waiting for the first year in anticipation, as it is a unique situation for the only country where a wave of new drivers will hit the road in a short time.

Yara Al-Qahtani is excited to use her license on the first day and has waited to drive since she was 16. A medical intern at King Abdulaziz University, she doesn’t have fears of going to work everyday. “It’s a basic fundamental right and grants independence to women,” she said.

"Women need to be more encouraged," she added. “What I’ve noticed at the driving school is many women have to break the barriers of fear. The anti-harassment law should create a safer environment.”

Dr. Sharifah Al-Amri, a young medical doctor at King Abdulaziz University Hospital, goes to work with Uber. Like many working women, Alamri is optimistic her daily life will improve and the change will lift the financial burden of paying drivers regularly.

She finished her driving lessons recently and described the learning experience as a positive and a smooth experience. “All the instructors are Saudi, which is what I had hoped to find. They were professional and well versed in teaching driving lessons,” she said. “The website for the driving school is comprehensive.”

“However, what I didn’t like was the help support. On the first day, it was a hassle to find the right place and they didn’t provide that information beforehand. Secondly, they don’t respond quickly enough whenever someone has an inquiry. I think it might be because of the large volume of applicants.”

As for the test, she described it as tough. “They gave us a heads up that they won’t be lenient with the applicants. All in all, there’s a big difference between men’s driving schools and women’s. Firstly, the cost of SR2,525 is much higher for us than for men. And if you fail the test, which costs another fee, you have to pay again to repeat it. I think it’s unfair they can pass tests without enrolling in schools. With time, we expect to be the same.”

Those who obtained early appointments are considered lucky, according to several women waiting for their turn.

Rana Hani, a private sector employee, said she applied a month and a half ago and haven’t received her turn yet although she found the process to be easy and convenient.

For her, driving is about convenience. “I’m beyond excited that I can just start my engine and get going whenever I need to,” she said. “My job requires me to move a lot during the day, such as going to meetings so it’s going to make it easier.”

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