Women’s confidence soaring thanks to their empowerment
I still pinch myself when I’m driving to work that this is not a dream. I look around me to confirm that I am actually driving in Jeddah and not in a city in another country. A year after the historic decision to allow women to drive in Saudi Arabia, it still feels new and exciting.
For most of the women of my generation who asked for and sought the right to drive, we knew it was going to happen one day, but had almost lost hope that it would be during our lifetime. The reasons and explanations given by the radical clerics for prohibiting women from driving — some bizarre and outrageous, such as how driving would harm women’s health and lead to the moral decay of society — made it seem impossible that the rules would ever be changed.
Even though there is no historical, logical or factual interpretation of religious text that supports the argument for prohibition, some religious clerics were vehemently against the idea of women driving. The only justification usually given is a religious principle that leans toward prohibiting a permissible act if it is perceived that it would most likely lead to terrible consequences. It is this kind of thinking that stifled the progress of Saudi Arabia in many other fields for 30 years. Everything could possibly have negative consequences or effects or lead to unforeseen outcomes, but that is why laws and regulations are put in place and adult people are expected to use their brain and common sense to make decisions. One year after lifting the ban on women driving and issuing laws and regulations against harassment, all indications point to normal road activity.
There is another religious principle not usually considered by the fundamentalists, and that is that everything is in essence permissible unless it is clearly prohibited and stated as sin in the Qur’an. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to enjoy the tolerance and flexibility of our religion, and instead had to endure living in fear and under restrictions.
Now, we feel liberated. Since the launch of Vision 2030 by King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia has been experiencing a transformation that puts the country on the fast track to a future of great possibilities. For women, it is a golden age.
Driving was a basic right for women that had to be stated loud and clear to end the decades of futile debate.
Driving was a turning point because it was such a symbolic act for the liberation of women. For sure, there are more important issues concerning women’s rights, such as recognizing women as independent people who can make decisions without the need for a male guardian, and many of these issues have been addressed during the past three years. However, driving was a basic right for women that had to be stated loud and clear to end the decades of futile debate.
Today, women are being employed at a higher rate than ever before in almost every sector and in different capacities. There is more confidence in women that they can deliver. This comes from the confidence women feel about themselves because they have been empowered with the means and laws that treat them as equal to men. One of those laws is certainly the freedom to drive.
Gone are the days when women had to rely on a male driver, whether a relative or a hired chauffeur, or had to take taxis everywhere because of a lack of public transportation. Now, we have the choice to drive ourselves. Although the number of female drivers is still small, more than 40,000 driver’s licenses were issued to women in Saudi Arabia between June and January. This number is expected to increase considerably once more driving schools for women are opened across the Kingdom to shorten the waiting list, which women complain is months long.
Admittedly, some of the women who got their licenses are still opting not to drive, preferring to sit in the back seat and let the driver handle the stress and crazy, rude driving of some motorists. There is also the problem of finding parking spaces. These hassles need to be resolved for the sake of all drivers, not just women, to ensure a safe, comfortable and convenient driving experience.
According to a study by PwC Middle East, Saudi Arabia’s female population is projected to reach 15 million in 2020, 20 percent of which (3 million) are projected to be drivers based on their age, income and qualifications. This projected number seems unrealistic. Nevertheless, the expected impact more driving licenses issued to women will have on the Kingdom’s automotive market — such as car sales, motor insurance and vehicle leasing — as indicated in the study is reasonable.
It is common now during women’s gatherings to hear them talk about having difficulty finding a parking spot, test driving a new car or taking their cars for a checkup.
What a difference a year can make.
- Maha Akeel is a Saudi writer. She is based in Jeddah. Twitter: @MahaAkeel1