Close Saudi women in the driver’s seat — and in the crosshairs of change
Date TimeJune 24, 2018

Saudi women in the driver’s seat — and in the crosshairs of change

VoiceSaudi women are in the driver’s seat for the first time in their country and steering their way through busy city streets just minutes after the world’s last remaining ban on women driving was lifted on Sunday.
It’s a euphoric and historic moment for women who have had to rely on their husbands, fathers, brothers and drivers to run basic errands, get to work, visit friends or even drop kids off at school. The ban had relegated women to the backseat, unable to determine when and how to move around.
Saudi women in the driver’s seat — and in the crosshairs of change
But after midnight Sunday, Saudi women finally joined women around the world in being able to get behind the wheel of a car and simply drive.
“I’m speechless. I’m so excited it’s actually happening,” said Hessah al-Ajaji, who drove her family’s Lexus down the capital’s busy Tahlia St. after midnight.
Al-Ajaji had a U.S. driver’s licence before obtaining a Saudi one and appeared comfortable at the wheel as she pulled up and parked. As for the male drivers on the road, “they were really supportive and cheering and smiling,” she said.
In a few hours, she said, she’ll drive herself to work for the first time in Saudi Arabia.
For nearly three decades, Saudi women and the men who support them have been calling for women to have the right to drive. The few women who tried to drive in past years faced arrest for defying the ban as women in other Muslim countries drove freely. Ultraconservatives had long warned that allowing women to drive would lead to sin and expose women to harassment.
Criticism has since been muted after King Salman announced last year that women would be allowed to drive. Many now say they support the decision and see it as long overdue.
“I will get my driver’s licence, but I won’t drive because I have a driver. I am going to leave it for an emergency. It is one of my rights and I will keep it in my purse,” said 60 year-old Lulwa al-Fireiji, who attended a government-sponsored event encouraging women to drive.
The overwhelming majority of women in Saudi Arabia still don’t have licences. Many haven’t had a chance to take the gender-segregated driving courses that were first offered to women only three months ago. There’s also a waiting list of several months for courses in major cities where they are offered. And the classes can be costly, running several hundred dollars.
Others already own cars driven by chauffeurs and are in no rush to drive themselves. In many cases, women say they’ll wait before rushing to drive to see how the situation on the streets pans out and how male drivers react.
While some quietly oppose the decision, there are men who are openly embracing the greater rights being granted to Saudi women.
“I see that this decision will make women equal to men and this will show us that women are capable of doing anything a man can do,” said Fawaz al-Harbi. “I am very supportive and in fact I have been waiting for this decision so that my mother, my sisters will drive.”
The move places Saudi women at the heart of a major transformation being spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. It also places women at the centre of a tug-of-war between those agitating for more openings and a religious majority that remains wary of changes that could be influenced by the West.
It was only a few years ago that religious police — known for their long beards and white robes — enforced an austere interpretation of Islam that banned music of any kind in public. They could detain groups of unmarried men and women for simply standing around or sitting together. They ensured restaurants and stores closed their doors for daily prayers and waved sticks at women who had their hair or face uncovered, shouting through microphones attached to the tops of their cars as they patrolled the streets.
Unlike previous Saudi monarchs who took cautious, incremental steps to reform the country, King Salman has granted his 32-year-old son and heir, the crown prince, a free hand to usher in dramatic moves that are reshaping the country. Allowing musical concerts, opening movie theatres, easing restrictions on gender segregation and reigning in the powers of the religious police have all been signature reforms of the young prince.
He’s seen as the force behind the king’s decision to lift the longstanding ban on women driving.
“I can say that Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince, came at the right time. He is young and motivated,” al-Fireiji said.
Al-Fireiji, 60, quickly clarified that while there was “nothing wrong” with previous Saudi rulers, now is the time for change.
“The young people are motivated and we need at this time someone like Mohammed bin Salman — motivated, God bless him, and daring. He will move the country (forward) faster,” she said.
Granting women the right to drive is part of a wider blueprint for the future drawn up by the crown prince. In an era of sustained lower oil prices, the government is pushing Saudis to become less reliant on the government for jobs, handouts and subsidies. Some 70 per cent of Saudis who work are employed in the public sector and rely on the government for their wages.
Official statistics show that women make up the overwhelming majority of job seekers in Saudi Arabia and that about 34 per cent of Saudis seeking employment are between 25 and 29 years old.
The state alone cannot create enough public sector jobs to keep up with the pace of Saudis seeking work, so foreigners are being booted out of jobs at restaurants, banks, cellphone repair shops and many sales floors to make way for Saudis. Companies are required to stack their workforce with a minimum number of Saudi nationals or face heavy fines.
To encourage two-income households, Saudi women are taking on jobs that were once reserved for men at lingerie shops and makeup stores. When they start driving, many will be able to more easily get to work and will no longer need to hire drivers, who often hail from India and Pakistan. Women will even be allowed to work as drivers.
Prince Mohammed is set to inherit a country where more than half of its 20 million citizens are under the age of 25. Many are active on social media, where Saudis are vocal about the pace of change.
Just last week, conservative citizens took to YouTube and Twitter to criticize a Russian circus that included female performers in body-hugging leotards. Before the show could finish its four-day run in Riyadh, the king had fired the head of the entertainment authority.
Under the crown prince, the message pushed by officials is that Saudi Arabia is modernizing, not westernizing. The prince has branded the reforms as a return to “moderate Islam.” Even the country’s ultraconservative clerics, who for decades warned against allowing women to work and drive, have toed the line with muted statements of support.
The tightrope the government has to walk between “a shrinking insular and traditionalist majority and a growing progressive and internationalist minority” is a defining feature of modern Saudi Arabia, said a report by the Arabia Foundation, a Washington-based think-tank that has links with the Saudi government.
The report said the government maintains a delicate balance between reformers and conservatives by “monopolizing the reform process,” pre-empting and suppressing grassroots activism or, on occasion, tolerating it as a safety valve for expressing grievances.
Just last month, the pendulum appeared to swing away from the latter when several prominent women’s rights activists who were at the forefront of calls to lift the driving ban were arrested. At least 10 are still being held in an undisclosed location with no access to lawyers.
The arrests highlight how quickly the levers of reform can be pulled back.
“It looks like the only reform they want is the one that comes from above and any sort of calls for changes, no matter how positive they are and will benefit the country, will not be tolerated from below,” said Kareem Chehayeb, a researcher at Amnesty International.
Three of the women still detained — Aziza al-Yousef, Loujain al-Hathloul and Eman al-Nafjan — are seen as icons of a larger democratic and civil rights push in the kingdom. The women had also been calling for an end to guardianship laws that give male relatives final say over whether a woman can marry, obtain a passport or travel abroad.
Since their arrest, the women have been branded traitors by state-aligned media. Prosecutors accuse them of working with foreign entities and attempting to harm the interests of the kingdom.
It comes after Prince Mohammed oversaw the arrests of dozens of writers, moderate clerics and others last year for apparently not emphatically supporting his policies, including the Saudi-led war in Yemen and a standoff with Qatar. In November, he further consolidated power when he arbitrarily detained influential businessmen, officials and at least a dozen high-level princes in a purported anti-corruption campaign.
The arrest of the women’s rights activists just before women are allowed to drive sends a message that “you are subjects and not citizens” and that the Saudi leadership alone controls when and how change takes shape, said Kristin Diwan, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
“You could get the idea that OK now we’re allowing driving and allowing a real opening, but that kind of encourages women to demand and ask for more,” she said. “I think they want to make sure that that is not the message they’re communicating. You cannot make demands on the government. The government will decide what policies are best.”

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Sebastian Vettel: Ferrari ace SLAMS Max Verstappen for Japanese Grand Prix collision
Banksy artwork self-destructs after selling at auction for £1m – video
Scott Wilson, 'Walking Dead' actor, dies at 76
Khabib Nurmagomedov taps out Conor McGregor then sparks melee in crowd
Weekend Box Office: 'Venom' Heads for Massive $80M; 'A Star Is Born' Singing to $40M-Plus
Senate Confirms Brett Kavanaugh To Supreme Court, Rejects Me Too Movement
Sánchez seals dramatic Manchester United comeback against Newcastle
Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck are officially divorced
Voyager 2 May Be Leaving the Solar System Soon, NASA Says
Montserrat Caballe, the opera singer who sang Barcelona with Freddie Mercury, dies aged 85
WWE Super Show-Down LIVE RESULTS: John Cena returns, Undertaker and Triple H make history
SpaceX to Attempt 1st West Coast Falcon 9 Rocket Landing on Sunday
'Bachelor' Contestant Cristy Caserta Dead at 38 After Apparent Seizure
Trump Says George Soros Backs 'Paid Professional' Kavanaugh Protesters
Brett Kavanaugh: Susan Collins poised to announce decision as hundreds protest
Lady Gaga Blasts Donald Trump for Mocking Dr. Christine Blasey Ford
Amy Schumer and Emily Ratajkowski among 300 arrested in Kavanaugh protests 
Unilever scraps plan to move HQ from London to Rotterdam
Nobel Peace Prize joint winner Nadia Murad's powerful 2016 speech to the UN – video
Lady Gaga Surprises Fans at A Star Is Born Screening and Tearfully Thanks Them for Their Support
Chris Evans Officially Wraps Playing Captain America
Brett Kavanaugh: key Republicans express satisfaction with FBI report
Nicole Kidman And Katie Holmes Reportedly Still Distancing Themselves From Tom Cruise After Divorces
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