I remember vividly the moment I heard the news on the radio. My husband and I were driving back to New York from a week-end with friends in Vermont. I was stunned. I turned on the volume, my heart skipped a beat and I could not believe my ears. Mohammad Bin Sultan (aka MBS), the Saudi crown prince, had just announced that Saudi women would be allowed to drive in 2018. I was deliriously happy but very cautious too. During my eight years in Saudi Arabia, I brought up the topic with my Saudi friends (men and women alike) and concluded it was another complex and contradictory aspect of life in the kingdom. Saudi Arabia was known around the world as the only country where women were not allowed to drive. Although not banned by law, the Islamic establishment was imposing a ban, making it impossible for women to get a driving license . Many Saudi women would go abroad to get one and have a chance to drive.
Some confided in me the frustration of being dependent on a father, brother, son etc. to drive them to the supermarket, the doctor… or a friend’s house. Others had a hired driver they had to share with family members (and they were sometimes far down on the priority list, so if grandma had to go to the airport, bad luck for them!), making it impossible to have reliable means of transportation. Bear in mind that the Riyadh metro project only started a few years ago, there are no public buses and when we arrived in 2009, there were no taxi services like über. Expat women were encouraged by their embassies or employers not to use local taxis.
Now, I was happy to be driven around, especially when I knew the driver and felt confident in his English and driving abilities. And when the car was a Rolls Royce…but that’s another story. I had some quirky and hilarious “conversations” ( a lot was lost in translation no doubt) with drivers from Yemen, Sudan, or the Philippines; some were called Jesus or Moses; others had interesting music tastes (from Christian pop to Oum Kalthoum); a few drove like fanatics and got lost (and I ended up telling them where to go! Thanks Google map). But my worst experience ever was in 1990, when the princess’ driver decided to stop at the mosque for Friday prayer, left me in the car and we were both arrested and taken to the religious police headquarters for interrogation. See chapter 2 of “The Polar Bear and the Palm Tree”, that’s my story.
I drove twice in Saudi: once in the desert (so that doesn’t count, but it was fun!) and once in the Diplomatic Quarters, where we lived. I had been driving for a whooping 4 minutes when a policeman pulled us over and put my husband, my legal guardian, through a pretty thorough interrogation, avoiding eye contact with me. That was a sobering experience, to say the least.
I am happy today that Saudi women have the right, the option and the freedom to drive if they need to or choose to. And to all the women who have been fighting since the early 90’s to get that right, now is your moment, I am so proud of you. Mabrouk banat!
#The women to drive movement #قيادة المرأة في السعودية #saudiwomendriving