Saudi women take the wheel, test-driving a new freedom

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A Saudi woman leaves a car during a driving training at a university in Jeddah. (Reuters)
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A Saudi woman has a driving lesson in Jeddah. Saudi Arabia’s historic decision in September 2017 to allow women to drive from June has been cheered inside the kingdom and abroad. (AFP)
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A Saudi woman receives a driving lesson from an Italian instructor in Jeddah. Saudi Arabia’s historic decision in September 2017 to allow women to drive from June has been cheered inside the kingdom and abroad. (AFP)
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A Saudi woman awaits her Italian driving instructor during a lesson in Jeddah. Saudi Arabia’s historic decision in September 2017 to allow women to drive from June has been cheered inside the kingdom and abroad. (AFP)
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A woman sits in a car during a training at a university in Jeddah. (AN photo)
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A Saudi woman gestures as she sits in a car during a driving training at a university in Jeddah. (Reuters)
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A Saudi woman has a driving lesson in Jeddah. Saudi Arabia’s historic decision in September 2017 to allow women to drive from June has been cheered inside the kingdom and abroad. (AFP)
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A Saudi woman awaits her Italian driving instructor during a lesson in Jeddah. Saudi Arabia’s historic decision in September 2017 to allow women to drive from June has been cheered inside the kingdom and abroad. (AFP)
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Participants of a driver training session pose for a group photo. (AN photo)
Updated 08 March 2018
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Saudi women take the wheel, test-driving a new freedom

JEDDAH: Fatima Salem giggled with hesitation when it was her turn to drive through a small car park lined with bright orange cones and arrows. Like millions of Saudi women, she will apply for a driver’s license in June — but first she has to learn how to drive.
“I’m a little nervous,” the 30-year-old master’s student said.
Francesca Pardini, an Italian former racing driver, helped to  calm her nerves, reminding Salem to check the mirrors and buckle up. Once on the road, Pardini reached over to help straighten out the wheel after a left turn, and they both lurched forward when Salem stepped on the brakes before a stop sign.
Effat University in Jeddah organized the sessions for students to learn the basics of how to operate a car. For most of the young women, the hour-long training, sponsored by Ford Motor, is the first time they have sat in the driver’s seat. Universities across Saudi Arabia are expected to offer women full driving courses once the rules and guidelines from the government are announced.
“I felt out of place. I’ve never sat on that side of the car. Usually, I always sit in the back or on the right side, but it felt good. You feel, like, in control,” said Sara Ghouth, 18. “I want to drive a car. I want to be independent.”
Car companies see the lifting of the ban on women driving in June as an opportunity to promote their brands and increase sales.
Ford’s Driving Skills for Life program, a one-time session that focuses on safety, has been taught around the world, and to male drivers in Saudi Arabia, but this is the first time the company has taught women-only groups.
“With these girls, they’re like an empty book,” Pardini, the Italian trainer with Ford, told The Associated Press. “They really want to learn.”
Before the training began this week, Ford conducted surveys with women across Saudi Arabia to better understand what they are looking for in a car and how to market their brand to the new drivers.
“The first thing we don’t want to do is be patronizing. This isn’t about lip gloss and nail polish and things like that. These are educated women,” said Crystal Worthem, a marketing manager with Ford.
Worthem said Ford “absolutely” expects a lift in sales as Saudi women start driving this summer. She says some women are already purchasing cars for when the ban is lifted, while others own the cars they are driven around in.
“Women have always been in our showrooms, but now women are actively shopping for themselves, which is exciting,” she said. “It’s a car that they can drive and not a car that they’ll be riding in.”
Amal Al-Jihani, 23, an architecture student, said her biggest supporter encouraging her to drive is her father, who has promised to give her one of the family’s used cars when she’s ready for the road. Her 16-year-old brother already drives.
“My mom is refusing the idea of us driving. She says it’s dangerous and she’ll let us drive when we’re married,” Al-Jihani said, laughing. “My dad tells her she’ll relax when she sees everyone else driving.
Joanna Al-Fattani, 19, relies on services such as Uber to go most places. To get to and from college, she has two different drivers. She said a lot of women are nervous about the idea of driving alongside men on the roads, but she’s looking forward to the freedom.
“It’s such an important announcement. Everybody needed this. Now is the right time to do it,” she said.
The President of Effat University, Dr. Haifa Jamal Al-Lail, said women driving would offer them more opportunities to join the workforce. “It’s not a simple societal change,” she said. “It’s time to take the wheel and drive to our heart’s content.
“Effat University always leads things and gives women opportunities that have never been offered to them before. This initiative is one of those opportunities, we’re offering it gradually.
“We’re making sure that the students, staff, and faculty learn the basics before going into real driving.”


Called to the barre: Saudi ballet gets its groove on

Ballet’s popularity is growing among different age groups. (AN photo by Huda Bashatah)
Updated 15 December 2018
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Called to the barre: Saudi ballet gets its groove on

  • Widad Al-Kibsi, a Saudi ballet instructor at the studio, said that people in Jeddah were now familiar with ballet
  • A 13-year-old student at the studio, Oroub Al-Shareef, said that she began ballet when she was 4 years old

JEDDAH: Ballet, one of the world’s most demanding art forms, is enjoying soaring popularity in Saudi Arabia as a new generation discovers its physical, mental and social benefits, and a Jeddah-based studio is at the forefront of the dance’s development in the Kingdom.
Sera McKnass, founder of iBallerina, said that the studio is shaping future ballerinas to be effective members of society.
“The goal is not only to pass on the art of ballet but also to raise up participants into healthy, classy and confident, caring individuals,” the 30-year-old Turkish-Lebanese master teacher said.
Ballet’s popularity is growing among different age groups.
“Mothers sign up their daughters to be trained as ballerinas, but now young adults have dreams of learning how to pirouette, chasse and jete,” McKnass told Arab News. “They come to iBallerina to start the journey and transform their souls and bodies, becoming stronger and more graceful women.”
Widad Al-Kibsi, a Saudi ballet instructor at the studio, said that people in Jeddah were now familiar with ballet. “It's now in most of the main gyms, and private or international schools in the city.”
The 20-year-old advises aspiring ballerinas to start at a young age. “It’s important to start early because improved strength and flexibility are easily acquired at a younger age.”
Ballet offers myriad physical benefits, she said. “It improves muscle tone and definition, elongates arms, and aligns the posture properly.”
Al-Kibsi said that while many Saudis saw ballet as an activity for children, “not a lot of them are aware that adults can also perform. They assume that you should be thin or flexible from the get-go. They don’t understand that with dedication and discipline, ballet strengthens and increases flexibility.”
Dana Garii, a 23-year-old Saudi writer, has been practicing ballet at the studio since February.
“I’ve been wanting to do it since I was young, but I couldn’t find the opportunity. When I found they have classes here, I just went for it. People asked me, ‘aren’t you too old?’ But that’s a myth. People think you can’t do ballet after a certain age, but you can start any time,” she told Arab News.
“Ballet is important to me. It’s more than just the physical aspects — it has taught me how to be modest, and that nothing hard ever comes easy.
“It has also taught me patience and how to take on difficult situations because it’s not only difficult physically but also psychologically. It has taught me how to overcome my fears,” Garii said.
A 13-year-old student at the studio, Oroub Al-Shareef, said that she began ballet when she was 4 years old.
“There was a TV show for kids about the mouse that did ballet (‘Angelina Ballerina’) and it inspired me. I’ve always wanted to be a ballerina,” she said.
“Ballet is very important to me. Dance is one of the ways I express myself and I feel at one with myself when I’m practicing.
“It’s a very hard thing to do, but it brings me so much joy.”
Saudi graphic designer Sara Al-Sabaan, 22, has also been practicing ballet since she was a young child.
“I started dancing in a ballet school in Guadalajara, in Mexico. Then I continued at the Kinetico dance school in Riyadh,” she said.
Al-Sabaan’s mother inspired her to take up the art form. “I’m following in her footsteps. She was a ballet dancer herself.”
The young dancer has watched ballet’s growth in popularity. “Dance classes were available when I was a child, but they have been most popular in the past decade.”
Practicing ballet is a form of self-expression, she said.
“I have danced modern, contemporary and classical ballet, and it affects me immensely. Not only is it a great physical activity, it’s also an outlet for self-expression through movement.”