Wednesday 20 February 2019

Saudi women brave man's world as driving ban is lifted

Dr Samira al-Ghamdi practises her driving ahead of Sunday. Photo: Zohra Bensemra/Reuters
Dr Samira al-Ghamdi practises her driving ahead of Sunday. Photo: Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

Josie Ensor

Women will be allowed to drive legally in Saudi Arabia for the first time from tomorrow and, while most are excited at the prospect, some say their fear of harassment will prevent them from taking to the roads.

The royal court ruled last September that the ultra-conservative kingdom - the only country in the world to prohibit female motorists - would lift the ban as part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's reforms.

"I'm so happy we will finally have the same rights as women everywhere, but my decision is not to drive straight away," said Fadia al-Majloul, a 23-year-old technology student from the Red Sea city of Jeddah.

"I will wait for a few months to see what other women experience, and what problems they face."

One woman said she worried men would not treat women drivers with respect.

"It's just not something they are used to seeing, particularly in religious areas, so who knows whether they will try to intimidate us," Eman al-Ameeri, a housewife, said.

"Men will try to impress women by showing off in their cars or try to scare them. But of course I want to drive at some point. I want to get a job, but it doesn't make sense to if I have no way to get around."

Others said their husbands did not like the idea, as they thought it would expose them to harassment.

In anticipation of the problem, the kingdom has introduced new laws intended to discourage such behaviour. Those found guilty of harassment of female drivers face a fine of 100,000 Saudi riyals (€22,000) or up to two years in prison.

Before they take to the roads, which are among the most dangerous in the world, women have to pass a driving test or convert an international driving licence if they have one. Some 2,000 women have gained licences in the kingdom since driving centres were opened in March.

An estimated six million - or 65pc of the female driving-age population - are expected to apply for a licence once the ban is lifted, according to the London-based consulting firm Facts Global Energy.

Much of the kingdom's overwhelmingly young population supports Prince Mohammed's reforms, but many Saudis are concerned that changes are happening too fast and fear they could provoke a backlash from religious conservatives.

Men opposed to the move have started an anti-women driving campaign on Twitter, using the hashtag #YouWontDrive.

However, it was quickly appropriated by Saudi women who answered with satirical retorts and pictures of themselves picking up their driving licences.

More liberal-minded men in bigger cities, such as Jeddah, have expressed support for the decision. Najim, an Uber driver, said: "I am so happy women will join us, there is no reason under Islam that they shouldn't be allowed.

"Plus, I'm tired of ferrying my three daughters and wife around all the time," he joked.

Women have had to rely on either male guardians, such as fathers and husbands, or taxi drivers to get around. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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