A mixture of excitement and fear has enveloped the religiously conservative kingdom of Saudi Arabia as it awaits the lifting of a decades-long ban on women driving on June 24.
In only three days the Saudi kingdom, which has some of the world’s tightest restrictions on women, will see women driving side-by-side as their male counterparts for the first time.
In preparation for the historic event, Saudi Arabia launched on Thursday a three-day campaign called “place your trust in God and drive” to encourage female motorists and raise awareness about driving techniques and safety regulations.
In a statementon Twitter, the ministry of information announced that educational events will be held in Riyadh, Damam, Jeddah and Tabuk during the evening hours of the next three days to “introduce women to road safety regulations and help break the barrier of fear”.
The events will depend on electronic simulators, educational stations and competitions to help “familiarise women with the techniques of using a car,” the statement said.
The ministry hopes the activities it has set up will help “instill the principle of safety first” and “showcase [to female motorists] the importance of using seat belts”, according to the statement.
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Leaflets shared online said the planned activities also aim to teach women how to park, while social media users shared photos of female-only parking spaces around the kingdom.
Using a hashtag bearing the same name as the campaign, social media users shared tips for female drivers including advice on how to avoid having an accident or endangering pedestrians and other drivers.
The long awaited decision to allow women to drive was first announced last year, as part of the then newly-appointed Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman’s plans to reform the socially conservative country.
In a reversal of the long-standing rule, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud signed in September 2017 a royal decree that said women would be allowed to drive “in accordance with the Islamic laws”.
Prior to the royal order, Saudi Arabia was the only country in the world that did not allow women to drive.
According to Arab writer and analyst, Hana al-Khamri, the government’s launching of the educational campaign is a good iniative, but not the first of its kind ahead of lifting the ban.
“There have been many campaigns launched by the government, some which were organised by female driving schools,” said al-Khamri.
“It’s also been interesting to see billboards [across the kingdom] about driving, now including messages that target women by using female pronouns instead of only male.”
Referring to previous campaigns, al-Khamri said that while they were generally useful, “some messages indirectly reflect an entrenched patriarchal society, that women are looked down upon and that there is a reluctance that women will drive.”
Al-Khamri, who previously worked as a journalist at a local newspaper in Saudi Arabia, also said that although the move is being celebrated, other considerations need to be taken into account.
“The move may contribute towards breaking social norms, but many women simply can’t afford to drive.
“There is a high unemployment rate among women in the country. Many have reported that driving courses cost six times more than those for their male counterparts.”
Fear and skepticism
Mixed sentiments have flooded social media and public discussion in Saudi cities ahead of Sunday’s lifting of the ban. While many Saudi men and women are excited and enthusiastic about the move, others are worried about its impacts.
“I honestly don’t think society is ready for this decision. People still worry about the recklessness of male drivers. What will happen when women start to drive,” said a 28-year-old Saudi woman, who did not wish to be named.
While Omar, a businessman in Jeddah, agreed that “people are scared about their mothers and sisters driving and potentially getting harassed”, he believes the move is a step in the right direction.
“My mother and sister have already issued their licenses, but driving [in Saudi Arabia] is a little wild. Adding women to mix will be worrying, especially for the first few months.”
Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia started issuing driving licenses to women, with ten Saudi women swapping their foreign licenses with national ones at the General Department of Traffic. The ministry of information said at the time that it expected about 2,000 licenses to be issued in the coming weeks.
But the arrest last month of a number of women’s rights activists – who staunchly advocated for the right to drive – has dampened the mood among observers and citizens alike and cast doubt over Riyadh’s commitment to effecting change as part of its much-touted Vision 2030.
“June 24 will be historic moment for women in Saudi Arabia but it will also be a sad day because the people who have been fighting for it for decades wont’ be able to witness it,” al-Khamri said.
The activists were branded threats to national security and face up to 20 years in prison if convicted.