Saudi Arabia’s monarch may have opened the door for Saudi women like Shahd to start driving, but she still needs to sneak out of the house to take lessons.
The 26-year-old business student knows she’s in for a battle to convince her parents because in their community, some would find it shameful to see a woman behind the wheel. Once she gets a licence, she’ll stow it in a drawer until she musters up the courage to ask.
“I’ll have to be accommodating to the whole society,” Shahd said in a café in her hometown of Buraidah in central Saudi Arabia, where it’s rare to see a woman’s face exposed in public. “I don’t think it’s right to force something upon them.”
Even as the kingdom ends the legal ban on Sunday, Shahd’s conundrum shows how daunting it will be for many Saudi women to suddenly transcend ingrained traditions that have limited their freedom during decades of state-imposed patriarchy. Guardianship laws bar them from traveling or getting married without approval of a male relative, usually a father or husband but occasionally even a son.
Change has come abruptly since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman charted out plans to wean Saudi Arabia off oil two years ago, which will be tough to do if half its population is disempowered. Yet at the same time as expanding women’s rights and social freedoms, he’s jailed women who campaigned to drive for years and come down hard on opponents to his reform agenda.
Saudi families are torn between embracing or resisting changes that clerics and government officials had spent years portraying as sinful. Some are concerned that their rulers are pandering to the West in a way that violates their traditions and religion.
“In itself, the fact of women driving is likely to become normalized relatively quickly,” said Graham Griffiths, a senior analyst at global risk consultancy Control Risks in Dubai. “However, as part of a broader revolution in gender roles in Saudi society, this will have longer-term implications for society, which could still cause considerable social upheaval by creating deep divisions.”
Prince Mohammed has opened cinemas, loosened gender segregation, curbed the powers of the religious police and allowed music to be played in public, overturning longstanding restrictions rooted in a rigid interpretation of Islam.
The culture shock is less pronounced in cosmopolitan centers like Riyadh or Jeddah because it wasn’t uncommon for parents to be comparatively flexible with their daughters, at least in more wealthy households. Many even got licences while studying or vacationing abroad and have swapped them for Saudi ones, proudly splashed in selfies across social media.
It’s a bigger adjustment in outlying regions like Qassim, nicknamed Saudi Arabia’s Texas by some for its conservatism and the prevalence of Salafi clerics. The province, whose biggest city is Buraidah, has established a driving school for women, but it’s not open yet.
Women interviewed by Bloomberg were conflicted, eager to drive but also wanting to respect that their cultures will take time to adapt. Two said they’d been adventure driving in the desert for years beyond the public gaze.
Others said their parents worry letting them drive will tarnish their reputation with neighbors. For traditional Saudi families, providing for women, including chaperoning them around, is regarded as a way of bestowing honor on them.
“Our problem now is shame and customs, not Islamic law,” said 43-year-old Asma Al-Musleh, who shared a commonly cited story about a wife of the Prophet Muhammad riding a camel in the seventh century. As she sat beneath palm trees at a local park in the town of Unaizah, a group of young girls were, quite aptly, driving back and forth in mini toy cars.
Al-Musleh is too scared to get behind the wheel herself, but her 18-year-old daughter Reef—who grew up in the Internet age—has fewer hangups. She’ll wait until “after things quiet down and people become convinced.”
Acclimatizing will happen more quickly in liberal pockets like Dhahran, an eastern coastal enclave that’s long been exposed to foreigners and heavily shaped by the American origins of Aramco, which is headquartered there. Aramco opened a center with 50 trainers to teach female staff and dependents how to drive using simulation technology, as well as other skills like changing tires.
“My friends and family are excited,” said 30-year-old Fatimah Al-Namlah. “Driving is one way of moving women of this country to the future.”
Nada Al Aswad, 37, is already considering what car to buy. “Driving is important for every woman who seeks independence,” she said.
In Buraidah, transformation rests on women like Shahd finding the courage to challenge the only reality they’ve known. They’ll have some help: A handful of Saudi women clad head-to-toe in black were at the local traffic department one recent morning swapping licences from Arab countries like Bahrain, Jordan or Egypt.
After passing a short driving test, Aljohara Alwabli, a 54-year-old retiree, thrust her arms into the air in the parking lot to celebrate. “Driving is a human right,” she said from behind her face covering and thick-rimmed and bejewelled sunglasses.
Shahd, who’s never traveled abroad, isn’t allowed to take Ubers or taxis alone so her brother gives her a lift everywhere—including to the driving lessons she plans to take in another town. She once turned down a job offer an hour from home to avoid disrupting the family’s drop-off and pick-up schedule.
While she works up the nerve to face her parents, Shahd is certain of one thing: her community will, eventually, have to adjust.
“I hear people sometimes saying this is a cosmetic change, or symbolic—it’s not,” she said. “It has to change the dynamic within families, within households, within public life in general.”