By Margaret Coker
June 22, 2018
With her bubble-gum pink hair and stylishly
ripped jeans, Doaa Bassem goes a long way to redefining what it means to be a
Saudi woman these days.
At age 14, she learned how to change the
oil of her father’s car and dreamed of owning a classic Trans Am. Although she
assumed she would be barred from driving the sleek, loud muscle car, she wanted
the fun of taking the engine apart and rebuilding it.
By 17, she had entered into an arranged
marriage. Within a year, she had given birth to a child, divorced, then
remarried and divorced again.
Now, at 29, she is a single mother who
works, lives on her own and plans to be among the first women who take to the
streets on Sunday, the first day they will be legally permitted to drive in
Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy that is the last country in the world to bar
women from driving. Ms. Bassem won’t be behind the wheel of a sports car,
though. She will be riding a Harley.
Women in Saudi Arabia have been fighting
for the right to drive for 30 years. Four key milestone moments paved the way
for the surprise overturning of the ban by the country's king.
“I’ve always been a tomboy and a rebel,”
she said. “Now, others are thinking more like me. Parents have started to
understand that marriage isn’t everything, that girls might want a different
life. And society is starting to accept this, too.”
According to the Saudi ruler, King Salman
bin Abdulaziz, his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and their many
supporters, the monarchy is verging on a great feminist leap forward. The
change reflects the tectonic shifts in a society that have helped women reach
the pinnacles of academic and professional success, combined with the effects
of globalization, which have brought more openness to the kingdom than at any
time in its recent history.
The new law allowing women to drive removes
a lightning rod for critics and allies who have long derided the Saudis, a
bastion of conservative Islamic orthodoxy, for following a repressive practice
embraced by groups like the Taliban and the Islamic State. The new law also
dovetails with the monarchy’s ambitious economic changes that aim to wean Saudi
Arabia, OPEC’s top producer, from dependence on oil and to diversify the
economy — shifts that require women to be workers and consumers.
However, while the joy shared by tens of
thousands of Saudi women over the right to take the wheel is undeniable, a
bright red line keeps them from equality — the restrictive guardianship system.
It is a mix of law and custom under which women remain dependents of male
relatives — a father, husband, brother, uncle or son — their whole lives.
Guardianship ensures that the gender
balance of power at home, work and perhaps even on the roads favours men by
allowing them to consent — or not — to letting their women work, travel or
receive medical care.
Beneath her free-spirited life, Ms. Bassem
is legally tied to the consent powers of her brother, her current guardian, who
has respected her choices. He helped find a progressively minded landlord to
rent an apartment to her and acts as her guarantor. “People get nervous when
ladies live alone,” she said.
The rulers have announced that Saudi women
will not need a guardian to apply for driver’s education or receive a driver’s
license. But that is one of the rare exceptions where men have no role over
Saudi citizens still need to contend with
the top-down system of governing in which they all are vulnerable to royal
commands, whims and punishments.
Among those women who will not be
celebrating on the streets this Sunday are the pioneers who broke social and
legal taboos decades ago with their protests demanding the right to drive. Last
month, Saudi officials arrested a group of well-known feminists, among them
some veterans of a 1990 protest, in what was seen as a warning to them not to
take credit for the end of the driving ban.
Eight leading women’s rights activists
remain behind bars, according to Amnesty International. They are facing serious
charges, including spying and sedition.
“There is no doubt that there is a deep
transformation happening in Saudi now,” said Kristin Smith Diwan, the senior
resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. “But we are
also witnessing a horrible crackdown on some of the people that made these
changes possible. What’s not changing is the nature of authority.”
The crown prince has sent mixed messages about
the guardianship system. In interviews with American media, he has declared
Saudi men and women absolutely equal. Last year, a royal decree commanded
government agencies to allow women access to many services without their
guardians — and to list those services to thwart bureaucratic abuses. The
lists, however, have not yet been made public.
The structure of the guardianship system,
which in many ways mimics the ruler’s power over his subjects, means that
individual freedom for women is precarious. Last year, a chilling case came to
light when a 29-year-old woman, Maryam al-Otaibi, ran away from home, where she
claimed male relatives had abused her. She fled to Riyadh, the capital, but her
father — her legal guardian — filed a criminal complaint, saying she had been
“disobedient” after he commanded her to return home. She was jailed for more
than 100 days before she won the right to break free from him.
Many women in the fields of social work,
women’s empowerment and family law prefer to focus on the gains women have
achieved, not the limitations that remain.
Since the crown prince took power last
year, judges who once would have automatically given fathers custody of
children in divorce cases have started allowing some mothers custody instead.
Women no longer need a guardian to register a business. More private companies
are hiring women for technical and manual labour jobs, helping pull poor
families or single mothers up the socio-economic ladder.
Salma al-Rashid, the chief programs officer
at Al Nahda Philanthropic Organization for Women in Riyadh, which for more than
50 years has been working with disadvantaged women and families, pointed to
recent legal changes that have improved financial and emotional security for a
majority of Saudi women, whose lives bear no resemblance to the stereotypical
wealthy Saudi resident.
A catalyst of social change, Ms. Rashid
said, is the growing number of Saudi women who are graduating from college,
travelling abroad on scholarships and entering the work force.
“Saudi Arabia is not black and white,” she
said. “We are incredibly diverse. The biggest engine that has driven these
changes is economical. History shows this is the case everywhere in the world.”
In the eastern province city of Al Khobar,
Seham al-Amri, 39, is one of a significant number of Saudi women who have
capitalized on the changes to make a better life.
From the time she was young, she was the
clever one in her family. She attended a public university and studied Arabic
literature, married at 19, raised five children and taught at a girls’ school.
Three years ago, however, when the kingdom
was pushing businesses to hire more Saudi citizens, she sought work in the
private sector, where pay was much higher and opportunities for women were
growing. A leading telecom company offered her a sales position, but Ms. Amri’s
husband — her guardian — refused to consent.
Ms. Amri went behind his back. She took her
brother to the company to act as her guardian, and she got the job. Her stellar
sales record made her a standout candidate this spring when car companies were
seeking Saudi women to help sell vehicles to the rush of new drivers they were
Her husband still disliked the idea, she
said, but her new company, the Saudi owner of the Range Rover franchise, did
not ask her for a guardian’s approval.
She sold seven cars in her first three
weeks. Her husband, she said, likes the larger pay check she brings home. He
also has grudgingly accepted her work because relatives and neighbours have not
gossiped about it. “He didn’t want any shame on the family,” she said. “As for
my family, they are all as proud as can be.”
A Saudi public opinion poll, commissioned
in February by Uber, showed that more than 90 percent of respondents felt
positively about lifting the driving ban.
That has not diminished the sexism. A
popular preacher last year strongly opposed letting women drive, saying their
brains were half the size of men’s. Several men said this week that they would
stay home on Sunday, convinced that car accidents — already a problem in the
country — would surge.
The planned rollout for women drivers,
despite months of build-up, has hit several bumps, partly because of
insufficient driver’s education programs and the overlapping bureaucracies
needed to fulfil the royal decree.
The government has said that women with
valid licenses from abroad may obtain a Saudi license with minimal fuss.
Several hundred will be ready to drive on Sunday.
Yet for tens of thousands of others, the
path to driving has been full of obstacles. Only a limited number of training
courses have opened for women — and given the strict gender segregation in
effect in schools and government agencies, it is challenging to staff them.
Earlier this year, pilot driver’s education
programs were scrambling to find qualified women to instruct their Saudi
sisters. That is how Sheikha al-Kadeeb, 29, who had been looking for work in
finance, was recruited to teach driving.
Ms. Kadeeb learned in Los Angeles, where
she earned an M.B.A. She loved cruising California freeways in her Jeep
Wrangler and jumped at the opportunity to impart her enthusiasm at home. “I
feel like I’m on a mission,” she said. “I get a chance to help my country.”
Parents and family members, meanwhile, have
worried about what would happen to women if their cars broke down or the police
pulled them over. Casual encounters with strange men are discomfiting to many
Saudi women. Nor are some willing to risk the physical threats of being stuck
Another problem is the cost of driver’s
education for women, which is four to five times as expensive when compared
with what men pay.
Mohammed al-Ghanami, a diving instructor
for the Saudi Marines, has been giving his wife lessons in remote areas where
the police or other motorists will not disturb them. He moonlights as an Uber
driver and wants his wife to be able to drive their child to the doctor or
anywhere else in an emergency, given his extended absences.
“She can do it,” he said. “She’s a careful
person and a good driver.”
Groups of girlfriends, meanwhile, are
making celebratory plans for their first drive. Rezan Ben Hassan, 29, learned
when she was 16 on desert camping trips with her family. She intends to take
the keys to the family vehicle on Sunday and cruise to a cafe.
In Al Khobar, Ms. Bassem, the motorcycle
lover, plans to hit the road with friends from the local Harley Davidson club.
Of their roughly 700 members in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, a handful of
women love Hogs.
In what appears to be an attempt to
dissuade unqualified drivers on Sunday, the Ministry of Interior announced that
the police would be fining drivers caught without a license 900 riyals, or
The lack of an official license, however,
is not discouraging Ms. Bassem. “This is going to be one of the most exciting
days of my life,” she said.