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.”