Women in Saudi Arabia test-drive new freedom
JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia
Fatima Salem giggles with hesitation when it’s her turn to drive through a small parking lot lined with bright orange cones and arrows. Like millions of Saudi women, she plans on applying for a driver’s license when the kingdom lifts its ban on women driving in June. But first, she has to learn how to drive.
“I’m a little nervous,” the 30-year-old master’s student said.
Francesca Pardini, an Italian former racecar driver, helps calm her nerves, reminding Salem to check the mirrors and buckle up. Once on the road, Pardini reached over to help straighten out the wheel after a left turn, and they both lurched forward when Salem stepped on the brakes before a stop sign.
The right to drive, which people in other countries gain as teenagers after a similar ordeal – derisively referred to as driver’s ed – has been denied to Saudi women. Dozens who dared to protest and defy the ban over the years were jailed, prosecuted and stigmatized.
A stunning royal decree issued last year by King Salman announcing that women would be allowed to drive in 2018 upended one of the most visible forms of discrimination against women in Saudi Arabia, where guardianship laws still give men the final say on whether a woman can travel abroad, obtain a passport or marry.
The king’s 32-year-old son and heir, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has pushed through a number of other reforms to relax some of the country’s ultraconservative rules, including allowing women into stadiums to watch sports, bringing back musical concerts and promising a return of movie theaters this month after a more than three-decade ban.