Women in Saudi Arabia can now drive: Where will they go?
By UCL Global Youth, on 29 September 2017
Posted by Hanaa Almoaibed, PhD Student at UCL-Institute of Education
In an historic announcement on September 26, 2017, women in Saudi Arabia were granted the right to be issued driver’s licenses for the first time. This is BIG news in a country of over thirty million residents, 40% of whom are under age 25 – and 48% of these young people are female. Nearly twenty seven years ago, a group of forty seven women who protested their inability to drive were stripped of their passports, lost their jobs, and were publicly shamed along with their families. Over the past several years, there has been a resurgence of calls to allow women to drive…and well, not for nothing! My social media feed has been inundated with commentary, congratulations, jokes, and about a million memes. But does this royal decree really mean that in ten months’ time, diamante studded pink pickup trucks are going to flood the streets of Riyadh (as some memes so offensively suggest)?
The official rationale for not allowing women to drive was that the Saudi society was not ‘ready’. And it is true that some members of society (some in very influential positions) have repeatedly claimed that women were physically unfit and mentally incapable of driving. They managed to convince society that their mothers, daughters and wives were too vulnerable to drive; being alone in a car would put them in grave danger of assault. While I am emotionally elated and relieved that this day has finally come, the fact that these arguments have held up for so long is indicative of certain features of the Saudi society that for many women are not going to disappear tomorrow.
But why now, at long last?
Saudi Arabia is a very young country, with a very young population that is exposed to the global world through social media, TV shows and travel. Saudi Arabia is also undergoing a large scale economic and social reform transformation plan. It is a country that has seen rapid shifts. Just fifty years ago, the population was around four million, and only 5% of the adult population were formally educated and literate. This looks very different today, but while women are highly educated today, so many are not participating in the formal economy, despite government encouragement to ‘utilize’ this wasted ‘human capital’.
Since around 2005, many new policies have pushed to move women into the formal economy. The push to replace foreign nationals with Saudi citizens, for instance, gave private companies incentives for hiring more women. Workplaces were redesigned to have separate spaces, entrances, and facilities for women. With these new laws, women started to move into a variety of sectors. Yet, even today only around 15% of the labour force is female. Although women have increasingly joined the workforce in a variety of different sectors in the past few years, most notably in retail, Saudi female unemployment remains around 34%.
Will allowing women to drive change anything?
I believe it will change many things. For one, if women who already work begin to drive, they may have more disposable income, as financing a car is more cost effective than hiring transportation, be it live in, live out, contracted or one-off taxi or Uber rides. Families may enjoy less complex logistical negotiations about school drop offs and shopping trips. Many women will enjoy the freedom that their male relatives have always wanted to give them, as their mobility is no longer restricted. And finally, as much of the social media feedback indicates, women already feel more self-worth by the knowledge that soon, they may not have to request drop-offs and pick-ups in the form of endless small favours from their brothers and sons, etc…Their everyday rhetoric is changing. The government has now essentially shifted the choice onto the society and into the households that they claimed for so long were not ready. Are they?
Family, social norms and young women’s aspirations
I recently undertook a series of focus groups and in-depth interviews with young men and young women in Saudi Arabia as part of my doctoral research. The purpose of these interviews was to find out what social and individual factors shape their transitions to adulthood, and in particular, their decision to pursue vocational types of training and employment. During my research, I found that young women were highly motivated to gain university and functional college qualifications; in fact, often, they were much more than Saudi men. Allowing women to be in control of their own transportation may result in many more efficiencies related to scheduling and time management, for instance, and higher levels of accomplishment.
I also found that the young women have a heightened awareness of the social structures and regulatory barriers that enable or restrict their behaviour. As the significant regulatory barrier to driving and movement is now removed, there will inevitably be more room for negotiating choices from a social perspective. Most of the young women feel that despite persisting social structures, they are responsible, along with other women, to show that their aspirations for achievement are not contradictory to the overall social order, and most are prepared to engage with this idea publicly, in the form of educational achievements and work.
However, while many young women believe that while they can achieve anything, cultural norms surrounding mixed gender environments continue to generate a fear of social stigma. What constitutes this stigma varies depending on geographic location and socioeconomic status, amongst other things. Driving may open up new employment paths for women, but it will most likely not revolutionize the types of jobs and sectors that they will take part in. It is worth noting, however, that most of the young women I interviewed described their choices as their own, and many describe themselves as content with their own situations. Furthermore, women describe the careers that they do not pursue as ones that are outside of their ‘horizons’ of action and choice. If driving is frowned upon within the overall family setting, then women may see this as beyond their reality, making the impact of this development minimal, at least in the short term.
Finally, women discuss their ability to navigate family expectations and aspirations, and strive to make their families proud and work to convince them to see eye to eye with them if they disagree. Their desire for their family’s pride often translates into an aspiration that is in line with the family’s aspiration. This in turn translates into their desire to achieve a ‘culturally acceptable’ status in society. So, as young women undergo several turning points as they transition into adulthood, this new law will certainly nudge at issues related to access, choice and take-home income. It is a massive step in the right direction—a leap forward that must be acknowledged and celebrated. However, we must remember that social and gender norms are deep and hard to shift. The recent Royal Decree provides the welcome top down legitimacy needed to broaden the ‘horizons for action’ of youth, but it will take time for the wider society to shift, and for new spaces to open up so that all young people can contemplate new opportunities and express more agency.