As Saudi Women Get Wheels, They Defy a Tirade of Sexism

“Look, a woman driver!” appeared to have been a common utterance among male onlookers in Riyadh.

3 min read
27-year old driving instructor Mabkhoutah al-Mari stands next to a test drivers car at the Saudi Driving School inside Princess Nora University in Saudi Arabia.

Thousands of female drivers took to wheels legally for the first time in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia on 24 June, after the country lifted its decades-old ban on women driving ban. The historic reform that is expected to usher in a new era of social mobility in the ultraconservative kingdom evoked euphoria and disbelief across the world.

But the decree, which took effect from Sunday, finds its women drivers with a big task at hand.

Before embracing the novel cultural practice that is commonplace in developed nations, women drivers will have to tackle an onslaught of men’s sexism and aggression which have been deeply entrenched in a highly gender-segregated kingdom.

Reuters reported various flimsy cultural and religious reasons for the ban, ranging from the belief that women driving promoted ‘promiscuity’, to other ‘sinful behaviour’ to ‘clinical problems’.

Columnist Wafa al-Rasheed, in a Saudi daily, wrote that “social media is flooded with messages ridiculing women and underestimating their ability to drive,” AFP reported.

Sexism Floods Social Media

Social media has predictably been flooded with disparaging comments from men.

Echoing an avalanche of sexist comments, opponents of the move are finding it difficult to come to terms with the new reality.

"Look, a woman driver!" appeared to have been a common utterance among male onlookers in Riyadh, AFP reported.

Fearing a threat to the petrostate’s deeply conservative Muslim identity, many have expressed disapproval the change, Reuters reported.

In Islam, we don’t have this. During our fathers’ and grandfathers’ time, there was none of this women driving.
Wadih al-Marzouki, a retired government worker, Jeddah to Reuters

Such comments are in apparent ignorance of the fact that before their grandfathers’ time, there were no people driving at all.

Nevertheless, a slew of comments with images of traffic jams and fatal car crashes have already started doing the rounds online.

Pandering to the sexist ridicule, a Saudi Twitter user advised “men to stay home to avoid being killed by women drivers!”

"You will not drive my mother. You will not drive my sister. You will not drive my future wife,” AFP quoted a user’s tweet using the hashtag,”You will not drive.”

Netizens have also recommended that women drivers "avoid wearing makeup" while driving. Others have "pink coloured cars” and “parking lots for women” to offer as advice.

Reportedly, Saudi media has also presented images of the launch of a “holding cell for women traffic violators.”

Although more than 1,20,000 women have applied for licenses, the universal fear of harassment has kept many women away from the streets.

A Saudi woman interviewed by AFP said she had deferred plans to drive due to a fear of “road Romeos” deliberately crashing into women’s cars.

"We Will Drive and We Will Drive Better Than You, Men"

With the lifting of the ban, long a glaring symbol of repression, social media users, including woman from all quarters have fought back with courage.

Riyadh-based resident Ahmad al-Shathri in a shout-out to the empowering move said, “Women, do not let anyone distract you from this moment,” AFP reported.

“We will drive and we will drive better than you, men, ” AFP cited another tweet. 

Hesham Alghannam, a Saudi researcher at Britain's University of Exeter, apparently warned men of the consequences saying, "Men ought to be scared that even joking about harassing women could land you in jail."

In a fierce attack, users have called out Saudi men for being rather “ill-equipped” to do the job.

(With inputs from Reuters and AFP)

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