While highly anticipated, there was much uncertainty over the timing of the decision, despite the many social media campaigns to lift the ban, several official statements hinting at the possibility, and countless articles identifying the social and economic benefits. All of this was accompanied, of course, by loud opposition voices and counter campaigns.
The Arab News/YouGov survey on Saudi citizens’ attitudes toward women driving in the Kingdom confirms the overall views in the society, and sheds light on some prevailing convictions and contradictions.
The sample was not large, but offers a good representation of the population, with an equal split of men and women. Furthermore, the majority of the sample — 80 percent — was from the age group most concerned by the decision (20-39), with most married, highly educated and employed, reflecting a level of awareness and reasoning.
Considering the huge media coverage that followed the royal decree to allow women to drive, it is no surprise that the vast majority of those surveyed said they were aware of the decision.
The vast majority of people in the Kingdom support women driving, despite false impressions to the contrary created by vehement opposition voices.
More than half of the respondents said they feel happy, ecstatic, excited, relieved, encouraged, inspired or empowered about the move to allow women to drive; only 14 percent said they feel offended, angry or sad. This is surprising considering the vehement opposition voices, which had given the false impression that the majority of Saudis are against, or would object to, women driving.
This raises questions about the findings of previous surveys on “controversial” social issues, some of which claimed that the majority of Saudis are against women driving.
The Arab News/YouGov survey, on the other hand, found that more than three quarters of Saudi nationals support the decision to allow women to drive.
Slightly more women then men agreed with the move, but the difference in the percentages was negligible. This disputes another commonly held, but false view that Saudi men are old fashioned, and against women driving.
The reasons the poll respondents gave for agreeing or disagreeing with the decision were not so surprising. Many of those in favor of women driving based their opinion on a belief in individual freedom and rights, indicating a high degree of awareness of the issue from the legal, financial and security angles.
On the other hand, those who disagree with the decision to let women drive said their reasons were based mostly on collective social beliefs and personal opinions, followed by religious and economic factors.
Of course, many esteemed scholars have long refuted claims that there is any religious justification to prevent women from driving. Half of those polled who said they disagree with women driving cited safety concerns; yet this can be addressed through traffic laws and anti-harassment legislation targeting male drivers, with steps being taken in that direction. The other reasons cited by those who disagreed with the move to allow women to drive are simply biased male-centric opinions that might change over time.
It is understandable that many respondents expect women driving to positively impact the economy, employment rates and household incomes. Clearly, women have waited long enough for this decision, with many of the poll respondents saying they will apply for a license and start driving as soon as the decree takes effect.
About a quarter of Saudi women said they have already driven a car in another country, which is not as big a proportion as one might expect. This suggests that the growing awareness among women about their right to drive, and the importance of it, was not solely led by those with experience of getting behind the wheel.
Saudi women expect a major transformation in their lives once they start driving — and their reasons for wanting to drive are exactly the same as those for other women around the world.
It is a great feeling to know that you have the choice and ability to drive. As for those who do not plan to drive, for whatever reason, that is their choice too.
• Maha Akeel is a Saudi writer. Twitter: @MahaAkeel1