This week, women in Saudi Arabia achieved a rare social and political victory. After decades of being relegated to the passenger seat, of being detained for taking the wheel, women were at last granted the right to drive.
King Salman, ruler of the conservative Middle East nation, on Tuesday issued a decree that will allow Saudi women to obtain a licence for the first time in the country’s history. The decision – part global PR move, part attempt to modernise the oil-dependant kingdom’s economy – is slated to come into effect in June 2018.
Until then, women will continue living as they always have – reliant on men for mobility.
The daily reality of this is stranger and more unsettling than most would realise.
For one, Saudi Arabia has no public transport system.
This means more affluent women tend to employ chauffeurs, while the less fortunate must look to strangers, their husbands, fathers, even their male children to get around.
As Sydney-based Saudi woman and Women2Drive activist, Manal al-Sherif, told Mamamia‘s Rachel Corbett on The Project last night, “Imagine when your son who is nine years old, you allow him to drive your car, because you cannot drive it. Imagine the women who gave up all these jobs because she couldn’t find someone to take her to her job.”
According to the country’s own General Authority for Statistics, 34 percent of Saudi women were unemployed in 2016, and there’s little question that the driving ban is partly responsible.
In changing the lives of millions of women, the decree will also change the shape of the desert nation’s workforce and even its immigration flow.
Currently, its estimated that their are 800,000 immigrants (mostly from Bangladesh and the Philippines) working in Saudi Arabia as personal drivers. According to local media, this can come at a cost to families of roughly 3250 riyals, or AUD$1100, per month.
Ride-sharing services such as Careem and Uber, meanwhile, have become integral to women’s lives. Some 80 per cent of the latter company’s rides in Saudi Arabia are for female passengers.
As of next year, these services could potentially become a source of income for those women eager to exercise their newest right.
And there are expected to be plenty. In statement on King Salman’s order, Saudi Arabia said agencies have been instructed to expand licensing facilities and driver-education programs to accommodate millions of new drivers.
Yet as someone who was previously imprisoned for daring to take to the road, for al-Sharif, it’s about something bigger.
“It’s just the start to end long-standing unjust laws have always considered Saudi women minors who are not trusted to drive their own destiny,” she said via social media. ‘
“The rain begins with a single drop!”