In tougher times, more Saudi women drive for social change

As the cost of living rises in Saudi Arabia, a new generation of women’s rights activists is emerging from the working and middle class.

Fahad Shadeed/Reuters/File
Saudi women shop at Al-Hayatt mall in Riyadh in 2012. Single men are not allowed into the mall, which is accessible only to families and single women.

They were just meters apart at an upscale mall, but the two Saudi women, Nouf and Wilat, seemed to inhabit different kingdoms.

Enjoying a coffee at a ladies-only café, Nouf tells of a country where women have all they need. The young mother’s personal driver had dropped her at Kingdom Mall that day to meet a friend. The fact that she couldn’t drive herself was of no consequence.

That women require a male guardian’s permission to work, study, and travel “doesn’t hold us back,” she assures. “Our brothers and fathers, they help us.” After all, she points out, here she was enjoying herself while her male relatives were working to pay the bills.

Steps away, middle-aged store clerk Wilat and several of her colleagues had gathered during one of the five daily breaks for prayer. They had shuttered their shops’ doors, as law requires, and now were sharing a plate of Lebanese hummus.

Between bites, she recounts a life of struggling against her male guardians. “My family was against my working … because I would have to take a car with a stranger. This was a big obstacle,” she says. Like the other women interviewed for this story, Wilat asked that her full name not be used.

To be alone with another man was a step too far in her family, who already objected to a female relative being employed. Yet by financial necessity, she persisted and they relented. Wilat found roundabout ways to get to work with male relatives and hitched rides with co-workers.

With her tired face, marked by years of quiet defiance, Wilat is part of a new wave of women here pushing for change.

Pushing the boundaries

For decades, women’s rights have been seen through the eyes of a handful of wealthy, Western-educated Saudis whose driving campaigns and Twitter hashtags ignite the global media. However the inability to drive – and many restrictions like it – are the bread-and-butter issues of working-class Saudi women. By contrast, many well-off women say they don’t need, or even don’t want, change.

“The wealthy people here are not interested to push [for change],” says Khaled Al Maeena, former editor of the local newspaper the Saudi Gazette. “The elite can pay 1500 riyals ($400) a month for drivers.”

It’s women like Wilat – who can’t afford drivers or cars, whose families object to taxis, and who persist nonetheless – who are shaking up society. They don’t use the rhetoric of human rights and wouldn’t consider themselves campaigners. But with their actions alone, they are pushing the boundaries of what’s possible.

On driving in particular – perhaps the most glaring women’s rights issue – many of these women say they are hindered by the taboo of gender mixing among non-relatives, unable to jump into a taxi with a strange man. They find their salaries drained by the cost of transportation, which often eats up a third to a half of a working-class salary.

“Not everyone can afford a driver,” says Basma Al Omair, head of an advocacy group within the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce that pushes for women’s empowerment. The group recently conducted a public opinion survey on the driving issue and found that 48 percent of society employs a private driver. “Without public transportation, you’ve actually paralyzed half of your society.”

A new working class

And yet these same women are increasingly called upon to be breadwinners, to step in and fill gaps in family income. As the cost of living has risen and restrictions on working have loosened, female employment has increased 48 percent since 2010. Many families are now dependent on two incomes.

That trend will likely continue as the price of oil hovers at record lows. The Saudi government has promised in its 2016 budget to cut back on a generous welfare state that has so far sheltered many families from economic need.

“Nowadays the woman is the man,” says Sahar Nassief, a Jeddah-based sociology professor and driving activist who says she is fighting for women who “need to work because they need to support themselves and get some food on the table.”

That was the case for Wilat, who left high school seven years ago to help support her family, long before it was common to see Saudi women behind the counter. Then, when a male relative and breadwinner passed away, she was married off quickly to ease the family’s expenses.

Wilat’s new husband was resistant to her working. But he relented because of financial need and his wife’s doggedness. “I need work” for income, she says, adding, “I am not used to just being at home.”

There was just one condition: Wilat’s husband would have to drive her to work everyday to avoid her mixing with other males. “This is something he insists upon,” she says.

The cost of restrictions

In Riyadh’s Avenues Mall, store clerks at a Victoria’s Secret explained how they’ve tried to cut back on commuting costs. “The girls who work in this shop are all coming together,” explains Awatif Ithamali, a 33-year-old clerk. Since they live far apart, those on the beginning of the journey spend extra hours on their commutes waiting for the driver to collect other passengers. “Each girl pays 600 riyals ($160) and the driver gives a discount for each additional passenger,” she says.

Cost is not the only concern. Tales of harassment, verbal abuse, and even assault are common among Saudi women who rely on hired cars and taxis.

“At the end of the day, those who harass women know that there’s a social stigma always attached to the female, not the male: ‘What were you wearing? How did you seduce him?’ ” says Tamador Alyami, a Jeddah-based writer who has participated in driving campaigns.

Social change, society’s resistance

Many driving activists see the public, more than the government, as the biggest impediment to change. Ms. Al Omair’s recent survey found that 50 percent of respondents support allowing women to drive – a “split society,” as she put it.

Taboos against gender mixing have also started to soften by the sheer visibility of women in society. Although offices are still meant to be partitioned, in practice, as more women become store clerks and receptionists, doctors and managers, they are interacting with all segments of society.

Some of the fiercest detractors to change are other women, many of whom are wealthy enough to comfortably ignore – or get around – the restrictions placed upon them.

Back at the café, Nouf’s friend, Alanoud, had strong words for driving activists. “Women who want to change the values and foundations of Saudi … We don’t count them as one of us,” she says. “We see them as outsiders.”

Yet it isn’t the activists who are most likely to change norms here in the Kingdom, but the armies of Saudi women taking up jobs.

One way or another, they’ll have to find a way to get to work.

Reporting for this story was supported by a grant from the International Women’s Media Foundation.

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