'Make way for me': Two years since Saudi Arabia lifted driving ban, three women driving instructors say much has changed

by Ban Barkawi | @banbarkawi | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 30 June 2020 16:08 GMT

A woman drives her car in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, June 24, 2018. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed

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Three Saudi women driving instructors reflect on how two years at the wheel has changed their lives and the lives of their students

By Ban Barkawi

AMMAN, June 30 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - It is two years since Saudi Arabia lifted a ban on female drivers, long seen as an emblem of women's repression in the conservative Muslim kingdom.

Since then, the country has enacted reforms including allowing women to travel abroad without consent from a guardian but Saudi women are still forbidden to marry without permission or to pass citizenship to their children.

The Thomson Reuters Foundation asked three women driving instructors how two years at the wheel had changed their lives and the lives of their students.

We spoke to 39-year-old Zeina in the eastern city of Khobar who in her Honda Accord drives for ride-hailing service Careem, delivers homemade meals and teaches women to drive.

Jwaher, 27, teaches driving in the capital Riyadh when she has time off from her job as a business-acquisitions specialist.

Before becoming the first Saudi female geologist at the ministry of industry and mineral resources, Fayroz Basmer, 26, spent a year-and-a-half as a women's driving instructor in the western port city of Jeddah.

How has life changed for you since the driving ban was lifted?

Zeina: We depend on our ourselves now. Can you imagine that (before the ban) when I wanted to go to the bank I would have to tell my dad or brother the night before so they can fit me into their schedule?

Now that I drive I'm free to make my own decisions. I can finish my errands and go to the shops three times in the same day if I wanted.

Jwaher: I no longer have to spend so much money to get to work using Uber which used to cost me about SAR 50  ($13.33) for one trip. Thank God now I have my own car which also gives me a sense of privacy.

Fayroz: It's been much easier for my mother and sisters also because I can drive them anywhere any time.

Are many women learning to drive?

Jwaher: I've taught no less than 60 women since I started teaching and many come to learn because they want independence. Divorced and widowed women now have the option to build their own lives without depending on a man.

Fayroz: One of my students had struggled for so long to tend to the needs of her household and family because her husband had a disability that prevented him from driving. Seeing her get her license filled my heart with joy.

Woman take a selfie with her phone as she celebrates with Saudi and Bahraini women the lifting of the driving ban on women, in east Saudi Arabia, June 24, 2018. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed

How do people react today when they see a woman driving?

Jwaher: Even today women will cheer me on. Men will sometimes make way for me to drive past them although I'm not sure if they're scared or if they're doing it out of courtesy!

I've never been subjected to harassment. I'm not saying it never happens to women but I feel people's social views have changed and the laws deter them.

Zeina: People are still getting used to seeing us drive. Sometimes you can see the shock on children’s faces. I was stopping at a bakery once to buy sweets when an elderly woman saw me and dragged her son away because she thought I might hit him.

Surprisingly, it's women passengers who will sometimes cancel when they see their Careem captain is a female but most of the time they're excited and will even wait for me if I'm late just to ride with a woman.

When I drive women to their work in the morning they feel comfortable enough to sit in the front with me while they put on their makeup. When I drive nurses home at the end of a long shift they feel safe enough to sleep in the back seat.

Has coronavirus prevented women from learning to drive?

Jwaher: I stopped giving lessons when we were under complete lockdown, for my safety and the safety of my students. I started again when businesses partially reopened and because people are working at 50% capacity, there's more time to give lessons.

A driving instructor teaches a trainee on a simulator car during a driving lesson at Saudi Driving Center in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia June 21, 2018. REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser

What other rights do Saudi women still want to see?

Jwaher: Our lives changed for the better and I say still there will be better things to come. We haven't comprehended the change that is still to come.

Fayroz: I don't really see any obstacles in the way of women. At a time when Saudi is invested in empowering us, we're showing we can take on roles that people previously thought we couldn't.

I was warned that a career in geology would be tough and it wasn't easy finding a job but I did it and I'm optimistic for what's to come.

Zeina: For me personally, I feel I've gotten all my rights. I never thought this day would come and there was a time when I wanted to leave the country.

I'm a strong woman, I can't continue to ask for permission at every step. Now I can travel without consent and even enter government departments without a male guardian. We now have a voice, we have a presence.

($1 = 3.7506 riyals)

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Reporting by Ban Barkawi @banbarkawi; Editing by Tom Finn. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org