Saudi workplace, homes and café are buzzed with heated and passionate debates on women driving. There is literally no escape from these conversations and I think it’s healthy no matter what the outcome of these debates is.
Women in remote areas of Saudi have always somewhat enjoyed the freedom to commute. Now with the permission to drive, the following possibilities are there for women in Saudi
1. Drive to do daily chores without relying upon personal drivers while saving more
A normal day begins with dropping off children to school, commuting back and forth to work, attending meetings, shopping, and other activities. Many women I know cannot afford drivers and are solely relied upon male family members in the household for daily movement.
Currently, an average household in Saudi spends SAR2000-3000 on domestic drivers per family including paying for recruitment cost of foreign drivers, providing accommodation, plane tickets, visa, license, food and medical treatment. Domestic drivers end back approximately SAR 26-30 billion in remittances back home annually. I spend around 900 SAR per month commuting to work while I depend on my father to drive us elsewhere throughout the day. Before Careem and Uber, my daily schedule would be entirely determined by the availability of my father and mood of my driver!
2. More women working in various professions
Due to the driving ban, some professional roles have been traditionally restricted to men despite being available for women to take up. My friends working in retail, telecom, hospitality and entry level roles in other sectors complain about why they are being unwittingly punished for not being able to drive with no government subsidized transport system while their male colleague gets to save their entire salary. For example, the minimum wage of SAR 3000 would mean a woman would pay around 700-1200 riyals per month on personal drivers or ride hailing services like uber or careem to go to work. When I applied for my first job, my worry was how much will I have to pay for transport and how much will company contribute.
Working women would have more disposable income now therefore more eager to take up more professional roles. In the near future, it may be possible for women to create women only ride-hailing services or pink taxis foster entrepreneurship, jobs, privacy and comfort for women commuters. I think we could have a more “women friendly” roads if we also allow women traffic police. Why not!
3. Owning and driving cars we always wanted
It’s not unusual for me to find young women in university campuses or moms in cafes discussing the latest or greenest cars they have hoped they could drive one day! It always seemed like a dream. While women car owners will boost auto sales I hope women will not just be consumers of cars but given the opportunity to take up leadership roles in an extremely male dominated automotive industry.
Many car companies are beefing up marketing efforts to capture the market before the ban is lifted fully in June 2018, Nissan, Volkswagon, Ford have released different campaigns.
4. Teaching equality and equity
When I was 7-8, I used to assume driving was solely reserved for men something women would not do. And as a young adult, I would struggle to help reason with young nephew about why women can’t drive. Listening to reactions from his friends and adults alike he developed an assumption that women are just ‘bad drivers’ or ‘can’t drive’. This is perhaps the most important change for mothers and fathers alike to help their children see the manifestation of equality and equity in practical life.
Many educated Saudi women who have left the country for not being able to drive would come back just because they can drive now!
So, what’s going to happen next?
Sheikh Abdullah Al-Manea, a member of the Supreme Council of Senior Scholars in saudi, has said the procedures to obtain license and traffic regulations would be equal for both men and women. While rumors are circulating regarding how these rules would be implemented including speculations on timings she can drive and she would require her guardian’s approval first – most women are optimistic these too will gradually be lifted if implemented in the first place. However, many women expressed concern that male members will just give up more responsibilities and leave it to women because they can now drive.
A change in mindset is needed to make this work
That’s why I think a gradual change of mindset, shared responsibilities and a positive perception of women in general are equally essential not just a change in mere legal structure that allows women now to drive. Men and women who still think women driving will summon dooms day are orchestrating a whole different campaign on social media highlighting potential danger including how women would be harassed and how women driver will create more accidents. It’s quite ironic that Saudi, even without women drivers, accounts for one of the highest road accidents in the world! My question is – if women are harassed or harmed by men if they drive, the focus should be on teaching young men that a woman on street driving is not asking for harassment, please! I do believe a proper plan must be in place to provide security for women however, women can longer lock themselves up just because men cannot accept women as drivers. Simple. Roads and transport are public system which both genders have access and can longer be monopolized by men.