When Hira Shah goes back to Karachi, Pakistan, from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, every summer, her 6-year-old son revels in seeing her drive. Almost every time, she has to explain to him how different countries follow different laws.
Shah, a mother of three, spent most of her life in Pakistan before moving to Saudi Arabia seven years ago for her husband’s job.
“I come from a family where women are very independent,” said the 38-year-old, who started driving at the age of 18. “For me it was a very big change — coming to a country where driving was prohibited.”
Last week, Saudi Arabia issued a royal decree stating that women will be allowed to drive starting next year, putting an end to the last ban of its kind in the world. It has brought a huge sense of relief to Saudi’s growing expat community.
“It’s more difficult for people like us who can’t afford drivers all the time,” says Arshi Parashar, a 28-year-old lecturer who moved from India to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in 2014. Many of the Saudi nationals she knows are wealthy enough to hire full-time drivers.
Parashar has to resort to cab services like Uber, Careem or EasyTaxi to go to work every day. She often gets annoyed by the amount of time and money involved.
“My husband goes to his work and his working hours are long, so I’ve [got] to rely on cabs when I go to my university,” she said, adding that she feels unsafe when she has to rely on strange men in a country that still feels new to her.
Saudi Arabia is home to over 12 million expatriates. Of those, 3.8 million are women, according to the Saudi Department of Statistics and Information’s2017 report. For most of these women, it was difficult to transition from a life where they had more control over their movement to one where they become overly dependent on their husbands, fathers, brothers or drivers.
“Not being able to get out on my own and waiting for my husband made me realize I was extremely dependent,” said Shah. “And that feeling used to bother me a lot.”
Saudi women’s rights activists, both men and women, have long opposed the ban and campaigned against it in widely publicized efforts over the years.
“None of us was expecting the driving ban to be lifted,” said Harvard Radcliffe Institute scholar, Hala Al-Dosari, one of the female activists who was actively involved in petitioning for an end to the driving ban. Al-Dosari appreciated the step but called it a “way to reduce the pressure generated by activists.”
While Al-Dosari is glad that women in Saudi Arabia can lead a more liberated life after the new law is put into practice next summer, she is suspicious about the government’s intentions.
“It might be a good stunt for Saudi Arabia because it’s presently facing a lot of heat in the [United Nations],” she added. “It is not done because we asked for it, it’s done for political reasons.”
For 30-year-old Aliya Parwez, who moved from India to Saudi Arabia after getting married in 2012, the most frustrating aspect of the driving ban was the amount of planning she had to do every time she wanted to leave her home for daily activities like buying groceries or meeting relatives and friends.
“Back in India we were free to pick our car and go anywhere we wanted to,” said Parwez, who is currently based in Riyadh. “After coming here, I feel I’m packed at home.”
Majda Ruge, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, says that the impact of a driving ban on women in Saudi Arabia is both practical and psychological.
“For a wealthy woman who can afford a full-time and optimally live-in driver, the practical impact is negligible,” said Ruge. “But for a woman who cannot afford a full-time driver, and there are enough of them in Saudi Arabia, the impact can be seriously debilitating.”
“How huge the psychological impact is can be illustrated by the following statement of one Saudi activist: ‘Saudi women surgeons were entrusted with other people’s lives in the operation room, but not with their own lives on the road,’” added Ruge.
Both Parwez and Parashar see the declaration as a welcome change taken by the government that will lead to social and economic reform and will empower women across the country.
“Overall, the impact of this decree is going to be positive, not only in terms of freedom of movement but also in their budget,” Ruge added. “From an economic point of view, this will provide families with significant savings.”
Like many other women, 27-year-old Mahmuda Saydumarova, who moved with her family from Uzbekistan to Riyadh about 20 years ago, is excited about the new law and the possibilities it might open for women. Saydumarova currently holds a U.S. and an Uzbek driver’s license. She admitted to being scared of driving in the city.
“The news made me start thinking of whether or not I want to really drive in Riyadh, where drivers barely follow road rules,” she said.
But for Shah, who tried to teach her 15-year-old daughter to drive in Karachi this summer, the new law couldn’t have come at a better time.
Shah often wondered how her daughter would understand the concept of freedom and independence if she lived in a country where she couldn’t drive. The decree has come as a ray of hope for her and many other families in Saudi Arabia.