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How Saudi women are driving their own destiny

In bygone centuries, Saudi tribeswomen sat astride camels leading their menfolk into war, chastising warriors who displayed insufficient courage. We can therefore rejoice at women regaining their proper place in the driving seat, after years of courageous efforts to secure their rights. Having interviewed over 1,000 Saudi women over the past 18 months for a forthcoming book, I share their elation.
Women drivers became a disproportionally outsized issue: An upcoming generation of Saudi women are among the most highly educated in the world, with ever-increasing numbers pursuing postgraduate studies. A growing proportion study abroad, thanks to the scholarships initiative pioneered by the late King Abdullah. Not driving held these women back from surging into workplaces. 
The driving ban wasted a phenomenal amount of time and money, with busy women who juggled careers and household responsibilities waiting hours in the sun for drivers who often arrived late, or not at all. Women complained that drivers with long client lists could pick and choose customers, massively overcharge or leave them stranded. Teachers lamented their wages being frittered away on transport expenses.
Banning women drivers made daily life mind-bendingly fraught and complex: Driving became a primary source of domestic strife, with household members arguing over priority use of the car. Fathers, husbands and sons will be breathing a sigh of relief at not spending their free time ferrying their womenfolk around. 
Traditionalist families often refused to let their daughters travel alone with a driver, compelling relatives to tag along for daily college trips and trivial errands. Over 80 percent of Uber’s activity in the Kingdom involves taxiing women around. The expense of foreign drivers is a $7bn annual drain on Saudi households. Pity low-income families for whom taxi services are an unaffordable luxury.
One of the factors keeping female employment artificially low (around 30 percent of the Saudi private sector workforce) is that many women avoid the stress of being chauffeured around by working from home. Some women I interviewed worried that driving was a step too far, and fretted about moral decline and road safety – but this didn’t stop these ladies excitedly texting me this week, exulting in their new-found freedom. 
International car manufacturers wasted no time advertising models geared towards the female market, and banks targeted women for car-financing deals. The all-female Princess Noura University will open a driving school, and demand for lessons is huge. Many Saudi women obtained a license in GCC states where they routinely drove. Given the ecstatic reaction, we can expect a deluge of women taking to the roads next year. 
The backlash from those opposed to women’s empowerment is just beginning. The first time a female driver causes a road accident, hardliners will loudly be pronouncing the end of civilization as we know it. However, those men who took to Twitter using the (Arabic) hashtag #women_in_my_household_won’t_drive may find a rebellion on their hands.

The right to drive is an important catalyst for further leaps forward, forcing those with patriarchal attitudes to reconsider their views of what women are capable of. 

Baria Alamuddin

But let’s face it, this time next year some Saudi women won’t be driving; less because of financial or practical obstacles, but due to social pressures from those closest to them. Cultural readjustment will take time as female drivers go from being something radical and unconventional, to becoming the norm. Often it is other women reinforcing the preconception that driving is unbecoming and morally suspect. The strength of tribal (rather than religious) dynamics should not be underestimated; compelling women to behave in certain ways to uphold tribal honor. Such pressures are more evident within particular families — Saudi social norms are infinitely more diverse than you might expect. Many successful women credit their father as the role model who encouraged them to seek a career and a meaningful life outside the home.
Many of the women I’ve interviewed take pains to explain that, given the spectrum of annoyances and obstacles in their everyday lives, driving is such a tiny thing: We’re talking guardianship laws, legal rights, bureaucratic frustrations, family expectations and traditionalist tribal attitudes. Often the problem is not the laws themselves, but how middle-ranking officials with outdated patriarchal attitudes create unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been told that Islam isn’t the problem: It’s all about “adaat-wa-taqaleed” — customs and traditions.
Traditions of arranged marriage remain deeply ingrained, often with the girl expected to marry from specific tribes. It is not surprising that marriages between two people who hardly know each other frequently run into difficulties; yet daunting legal hurdles face women seeking divorce, not to mention the social stigma and asymmetric struggles over childcare.
Much criticism focuses on the slow pace of reform, yet the rate of change today is staggering: Female literacy soared from 7 per cent in the mid-1970s to approaching 100 percent ahead of the millennium, with new career options continually becoming available and the jobs market overflowing with outstanding female graduates. I’m continually frustrated that these articulate, courageous and impressive women don’t get greater global exposure. The world thinks it knows everything about the Kingdom’s female “downtrodden victims” — it knows nothing!
I am always taken aback by how proud these women are of their Saudi identity; even those with the privilege of an overseas education. The traditional Saudi matriarch is strong and assertive, looking to forceful role models such as the Prophet’s wife Khadijah bint Khuwaylid. Khadijah was a businesswoman and many of the most successful figures today in Saudi commerce are women. Saudi women are fighters and they won’t stop with the right to drive: Guardianship laws are already in their sights.
But even if all discriminatory laws were abolished tomorrow, there is a deeper issue about how society views women. This is particularly acute in more remote and fiercely traditional areas. Too many women lack confidence in their innate value and capacity to contribute. 
The right to drive is an important catalyst for further leaps forward, forcing those with patriarchal attitudes to reconsider their views on what women are capable of. This decision makes the “other half” of Saudi society’s access to the workplace easier, and guarantees their role in the nation’s continued development. 
This is simply the beginning.
• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and a foreign editor at Al-Hayat, and has interviewed numerous heads of state.