By Arab News
By Lina Almaeena*
It has been a liberating year since women started driving in Saudi Arabia. I have always believed that women being allowed to drive symbolized much more than simply steering the wheels, but rather driving our nation and everything within its society and economy.
The first 48 hours after the driving decree took effect were euphoric. At midnight on June 24, 2018, I was on live coverage with the Arab News team. I will never forget taking my sister and children for a ride on Al-Malik Road — it was historic.
The sight of men in passenger seats rejoicing and traffic police distributing roses to women drivers crowned our celebration. In the morning, I remember driving to the MBC studio to participate in an interview. It was the most exciting live TV interview I have ever given.
However, the most significant impact was when I was able to rent a car and drive to my work at the Shoura Council, and the royal guards allowed me to drive through with a smile after checking my ID. It was a moment of pride and triumph.
I am one of 30 female Shoura Council members who regularly commute to the council in Riyadh, representing the nation. I felt proud to be among the first women in Saudi Arabia to rent a car with my Saudi driver’s license.
It was different from any other day I have been to work. We had recently voted for and passed the anti-sexual harassment law to protect not just women but all segments of society. This timely law criminalized sexual harassment through any means, including the use of technology.
But I have to say, as empowering as it has been this past year, my driving experience is sometimes frustrated by male drivers who don’t signal when changing lanes, which is actually a traffic violation that can attract fines from SR150 to SR300 ($40 to $80), not to mention certain kamikaze drivers at roundabouts or the strains of U-turns on the main highway.
However, there have been significant improvements, as statistics have demonstrated that traffic accident death and injury rates in Saudi Arabia have decreased drastically.
In my opinion, driving reflects the morals of society – a person’s driving reflects how calm, patient, caring or generous they are; in the same way that your real character is exposed while playing a team sport. Even though there has been progress, drivers with bad habits have a long way to go. But having women on the road has made drivers more conscious of their driving and, with the passage of time, I am sure we will be able to gauge a positive change.
Unlike the stereotypes of women drivers and certain chauvinistic views, women are statistically safer drivers and many car insurance companies charge women less than men, by as much as 13 percent according to a report by UK price comparison website Confused.com. The Financial Times also reported that men greatly outnumber women in terms of driving-related criminal offenses – by a ratio of four to one in categories such as speeding, careless driving and having no insurance or registration.
This first year has passed more smoothly than anyone expected. We can now look at the evolution of women’s rights globally and how we have come a long way from a time when women couldn’t vote or get legal protection and had very limited career opportunities.
Today, Saudi women have broken the glass ceiling. Women are now working in many roles that were taboo for them in the past, such as lingerie saleswomen, cashiers and even in the military. Saudi women today are in leadership positions as deans, CEOs, financial leaders and parliamentarians, and they continue to participate in nation-building. This year we also celebrated the appointment of women as foreign ambassadors and government ministers.
Today, women in Saudi Arabia are the change. I look back at the era before June 24, 2018 as a tale I will tell my daughters and granddaughters to come of the time that women couldn’t drive. To have lived in the two eras requires a completely different mindset. We didn’t get our Saudi driving licenses at the age of 18, but the one thing we have as an advantage over anyone else is a real sense of appreciation of the equal opportunities we have today.
With women taking their rightful place behind the wheel, we look forward to driving our nation to reach its goals before our first stop the year 2030. There is no going back.
• Lina Almaeena is a member of the Saudi Shoura Council (Vice Chairperson: Water, Agriculture, Environment) and co-founder of Jeddah United Sports Co., the first Saudi private sports company to promote the culture of sports in the Kingdom.