It’s 12:01 a.m. in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and traffic police in black berets and reflective vests are stationed at busy intersections passing out. Women pull up driving SUVs and festooned sedans, some with headscarves matching the color of their cars, and gratefully receive the flowers. Some are crying, some are beaming; others are cool and collected, blasting Gulf pop hits.
I’ve come to Jeddah, a modern city on the Red Sea that has all the contemporary trappings: expensive restaurants, on-demand app transportation, a booming startup scene. But it’s also the second largest metropolis in one of the most conservative countries in the world, where until the stroke of midnight women were not allowed to drive.
Throughout the day, galas and festivals will honor female drivers. Restaurants, spas and hotels will offer them discounts. Burger King is inviting them to the drive-thru with a WhoppHER, which is just a plain Whopper plus an “h.” Even the , many of which still blur female faces out of a sense of modesty, are suddenly speaking to women: “Dear sister, we wish you safety always,” .
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All of this is part of a campaign to celebrate the end of the country’s ban on women drivers, an unwritten but longstanding policy rooted in the conservative interpretation of Islam that has governed public life in Saudi Arabia to varying degrees since the inception of the Kingdom in 1932. Since Mohammad bin Salman was named Crown Prince last June at the age of 31, though, the monarchy has gestured toward liberalizing Saudi society. The Crown Prince, often referred to by his initials (MBS), has spoken of returning Saudi Arabia to “what we were before—a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world.” With the price of crude oil unlikely to reach its heights of a decade ago, the Kingdom has also set about rapidly diversifying and opening its economy. The end of the driving ban is one small but conspicuous step in the McKinsey-choreographed plan to remake Saudi Arabia into a hyper-modern, socially moderate nation friendly to foreign business. Saudi women—who live under a guardianship system that requires basic activities like travel abroad, marriage, and employment to be approved by a male relative—are cautiously optimistic, watching carefully for what will come next. For 10 days in June, I was in the passenger seat beside them.
The morning after the ban lifts, I’m waiting to get into a BMW sedan with Enaam Al Aswad, a 43-year-old part-time makeup artist who has become the first female driver for the ride-hailing company Careem. It’s nearly 100 degrees, sunny and humid, and we’re both wearing ankle-length black abayas in accordance with Saudi tradition. I am the only one sweating.
“I’m so glad, so happy, so excited,” Al Aswad had told me a few days prior. Tall and thin and with eyebrows so perfect they automatically confirm her makeup artistry prowess, Al Aswad is a seasoned driver in her native Syria, and her experience makes her the perfect fit for Careem’s purposes.
Today she has been enlisted by Careem to pilot foreign journalists one-by-one around Jeddah’s Beautat Business Park, a collection of offices across the street from Gucci and Tiffany boutiques. Inside Careem’s three-story headquarters, western writers waited for their turns to take a spin while domestic workers offered them silver trays of coffee and bottles of water and juice. Careem is the most popular ride-hailing app in Saudi Arabia; it is essentially the Uber of the Middle East/North Africa (though Uber does have a presence in the region). In the ban lift, Careem saw an opportunity to expand its services and begin training “Captainahs,” or female Careem drivers. Al Aswad is one of around 2,000 Captainahs who have signed up so far; the company aims to hire 20,000 across the Middle East/North Africa region by 2020.
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Before we pull away from the Careem office, Al Aswad launches into an animated discussion in Arabic with the company’s general manager in Jeddah. When she gets into the car, she’s visibly annoyed. She’d agreed to take three reporters on rides, she tells me as she checks her makeup in the rearview mirror, but Careem wants her to take six. “They’re really treating you like a show pony,” I say. Al Aswad laughs.
The day’s spectacle does little to occlude the international debate over the Kingdom’s motivations. Allowing women to drive paints a more modern image of the Saudi government for the businesses and non-Muslim tourists they hope to attract, but it will not offer Saudi women total freedom of movement. As a result, some see the right to drive as a concession from the male-dominated government that raises a familiar question: What happens when the right policy arrives for the wrong reasons?
“[The right to drive provides] a good opportunity to have a part-time job,” Al Aswad had told me, and driving will simplify her life in ways many of us take for granted. It will be nice for women to be able to drive their kids to school, I offer, as we steer through the streets of the business park, her stack of metal bracelets jingling. “And to take their kittens to the doctor!” she responds. “Which is really important for me because I rescue cats.”
Several of the male Careem Captains I talked to in Jeddah claimed they had passengers who said they would never ride with a female driver, but Al Aswad dismisses them. “You have all the reactions,” she says. “You have the good, the bad, the people who are afraid.” We drive by a cluster of businessmen on the sidewalk, and they smile approvingly and wave. “But the people will get used to it.”
Back in front of the Careem office, Al Aswad expertly navigates a patch of road outfitted with traffic spikes. The Careem manager and some of the other male employees, worried about the BMW’s tires, rush out of the building, frantically waving their arms.
“He’s very afraid,” Al Aswad says, laughing.
It’s past midnight the day after the ban is lifted and I’ve found myself involved in a high-speed car chase. The lead car is ours, an Uber, driven by a man taking me and my friend Sarah home from dinner. (To protect her privacy, we’ve decided only to use Sarah’s first name.) In pursuit, and now coming up on our right, are two men whose idea of romance apparently includes some light stalking.
“What’s your number?” the young men shout in English from their car windows as we hurdle down the highway. “Why don’t you want to hang out with us?”
Our driver decides to step in: he rolls his window down and starts arguing with them in Arabic, punctuating his insults with the regional gesture for “fuck you.” Then he starts to pull onto the shoulder, making good on his threat to fight. The two men, perhaps scared of what will certainly result in jail time, speed off, while Sarah and I laugh in relief. All this, just in the hopes of getting our phone numbers? “Oh, it’s totally normal here,” she says.
Sarah and I met through Instagram when I started reporting on the lives of women in Saudi Arabia after the 2016 election, a moment when the struggle for women’s equality felt both incredibly personal and impossibly global. At the time, Saudi women’s rights activists like Manal al-Sharif, Loujain al-Hathloul and Aziza al-Yousef had been fighting for the right to drive for decades, with little hope of the ban ever lifting. Their activism was not rewarded: after the government announced its changing policies in September 2017, 17 Saudis were arrested on charges of communicating with organizations opposed to the kingdom, discouraging any further fight for equality. (Al-Hathloul and al-Youself were both detained; al-Sharif moved to Australia and hasn’t been back to Saudi Arabia out of fear of arrest.)
The announcement that the ban would be lifted caught Sarah and the other Saudi women I’d interviewed by surprise. Could it really happen? Would the government actually go through with it? By the time the ban was scheduled to end nearly nine months later, many of my sources had become friends. We spent nights messaging about everything from feminism to 90 Day Fiancé. I arranged to travel to Jeddah so I could be with them as they witnessed the historic moment.
I arrived during Eid, a time of celebration that marks the end of Ramadan (“It’s like our Christmas!” Sarah said). While many Saudis were abroad on vacation, we hung out in malls well past midnight, eating Yemeni bread pudding called masoub and enjoying the industrial air conditioning. Sarah is studying at a local university to become a translator, and she proudly appointed herself my tour guide, making sure I didn’t accidentally stumble into the men’s section of restaurants or try to enter a store during one of the five times each day they closed for prayer. She is a ferocious competitor in the Generosity Olympics; once we came home from the souk with matching gold camel figurines we’d bought—for each other.
Jeddah is Sarah’s home, and she loves it the way you love a losing sports team: unabashedly and unconditionally, but painfully aware of its faults. The city is considered a liberal enclave in an otherwise deeply conservative country, one which Human Rights Watch says “systematically discriminate[s] against women and religious minorities” and routinely punishes citizens for dissent. (“Jeddah is great, but I don’t recommend you to visit other Saudi cities,” one Careem driver, uh, joked.) Jeddah began slowly “opening up” before Vision 2030, Sarah told me. Since the authority of the religious police was curtailed in 2016, people have felt more free to gather in public spaces without the fear of being arrested for minor infractions. Women can walk around with their hair uncovered if they choose. You may get stares, but no mutawa (religious police) are going to arrest you.
Outside a restaurant at Jeddah Gate, a planned community of apartment buildings and cafes, a jazz band played beside a fountain and families gathered on carpets laid out at the Corniche to watch World Cup matches projected onto a large screen. Public concerts and gatherings are so new that even Sarah hadn’t seen anything like them, which did make me wonder if they’d been planned just in time for western journalists to descend upon the city, guests in a Potemkin village of 3.4 million people.
But to many Saudis, these scenes are signs of a movement that offers genuine hope. “The changes that have been made to my country during the last five years, especially in Jeddah, made me the woman who I am,” says Hetaf Ghazali, a 25-year-old student I met at a co-working space in downtown Jeddah. “Optimistic, meditative and more realistic that nothing is impossible.”
For an American visitor, the effect is a kind of whiplash between Western millennial postmodernity and centuries-old tradition. At an airy cafe with industrial-style lighting near the all-girl’s university Effat, for example, it’s impossible to tell you aren’t at some hip Greenpoint coffee shop—until you realize the women and families sit upstairs while the single men sit downstairs. Western visitors must also navigate a set of slippery norms: I assumed a man got out of an elevator I’d stepped into because he didn’t want to ride with a woman. Actually, the elevator was just broken. And markers of modern-day girl power peek through the cracks: One night, Sarah and I were perusing a book store stocked with Kardashian biographies and copies of Lean In when I spotted a pre-adolescent girl wearing a t-shirt that said, “Feminism isn’t just for women.” Sarah laughed. “Oh, a lot of people here wear shirts in English, but they don’t know what they mean.”
There’s reason for any woman in Saudi Arabia to think twice before wearing a feminist slogan tee: over the last several months, the Kingdom has arrested more than a dozen activists for campaigning for the very rights Saudi women are now receiving. “The arrests of women…would seem designed to deny those women the credit for having pushed for those reforms and for it being possible for Prince Mohammed and those around him to say, ‘This is our gift. This is the men who have given this to women,'” said British historian Robert Lacey, the author of Inside the Kingdom.
The journalist Mona Eltahawy put it more bluntly: “To allow feminists to celebrate what is, in all regards, a victory of their years of activism would nurture the idea that activism works — a truism that authoritarians hate.”
Despite the complex political and economic motives behind government-supported women’s rights, there’s no doubt that the outcome will be major improvements in the daily lives of many Saudi women. The right to drive means more freedom of movement, and job opportunities in fields like accident management, emergency response and car sales, which will help lower Saudi women’s dismal unemployment rate. The change has also been accompanied by smaller reforms, including allowing women and girls to attend concerts and sporting events, take gym classes in school, and see their street harassers face fines. These changes may seem small to many westerners, but to change all at once would be mustahil—impossible—Saudis kept telling me. Instead, they argue, you have to change incrementally, taking steps so small they’re almost imperceptible.
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Two days after the ban was lifted, Effat University hosted a gala to celebrate the occasion. Women with new licenses gathered among professors and students to eat pastries, drink Arabic coffee and speak about what it was like to drive for the first time. A nervous-sounding young woman in a black abaya ascended the stage and made a quip in Arabic. The whole room erupted in laughter. Sarah translated: “She said when she drove yesterday, she’d seen so few female drivers on the road she thought maybe she’d gotten the date wrong.”
Though I’d come to see my friends during this historic moment, I didn’t actually get to drive with any of them. Bureaucracy prevented the majority of Saudi women from actually obtaining licenses before the ban lifted. Many women I spoke to said they’d wanted to take the driving test, but couldn’t get appointments until months later. More than 120,000 women across the country applied for licenses, and the few able to obtain them in time for the ban lifting were treated like celebrities. “If you just ask any lady who was driving, [there was] a lot of positive energy,” Samer Khan, the Dean of the business school at Effat, told me. “You can just smell it. It’s just going around all the streets. People are smiling and waving their hands even at the traffic lights.”
The right to drive is a major victory for Saudi women, but it’s not their last battle to fight. Because of the male guardianship system, which Human Rights Watch has called “discriminatory,” guardians are often in control of a woman’s finances, making it difficult to rent an apartment or hire a driver without their permission. A woman’s testimony in court is often worth half of what a man’s is, and sisters receive half the inheritance their brothers do. This treatment is rooted in tribal customs and the state’s interpretation of Islamic law, making it especially hard to change.
Still, almost all of the many women I spoke with mentioned the bad rap they feel they get in the media, and their desire to change it. “A lot of people, when they think about Saudi women, they think we don’t have our rights,” Samer Khan said. “I wish I can just talk with everyone around the world and I can tell them that Saudi women have the right to participate, to study, to drive now, to do whatever she wants.”
For the majority of Saudi women, the ability to participate, to study, and to drive is largely determined by the kind of family they’re born into. If her father is liberal and supports education, allowing her to earn degrees and choose a job and a husband for herself, her chance at independence will be much greater than that of a woman whose father insists she marry at 18 and not work outside the home. It’s not exactly that the Saudi government discriminates against women: instead, it’s that it legally enshrines the discrimination of women by their own families.
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“I’m very lucky compared to other women in Saudi Arabia,” Sarah acknowledged. “My family is open-minded compared to more traditional Saudi families.”
My friend Amal* isn’t as lucky as Sarah and Samer Kahn. Amal is a deeply loyal friend, acerbic and capable of listing every Real Housewife in alphabetical order. But even though she’s 28, she’s unmarried, so her father is still her legal guardian. He has control over all of the major decisions in her life—like whom she will marry and where she will study—and the minor ones, like where and when she’s allowed to go out. Though my trip to the Kingdom finally closed the 6,500 mile gap between us, her father wouldn’t let her come to Jeddah to see me. If she risked going without his permission, she could be arrested and left in jail until he decides to pick her up.
Amal’s circumstances aren’t uncommon. “Whenever I feel frustrated by my own situation I remember that thousands of Saudi girls have it way worse,” she said.
“Because of the guardianship system, my father can turn my life into hell, preventing me from doing anything, forcing me to do whatever he wants,” a 21-year-old student named Salma told me back in September. “I remember first realizing that men and women in Saudi Arabia couldn’t do the same things when I was in high school and my brother was allowed to go off to the states to study and live alone,” another student, named Joury, said. “I knew that was pretty impossible for me. My university offers a lot of trips to exciting countries, but the excuse my parents always give is: who are you going to go with? That really sucks.”
The galas, flowers and WhoppHERs won’t do much for Salma or Joury or for Amal, who remains at the mercy of her father. In the absence of broader structural change, for these women and the thousands like them, the driving ban lift is a conspicuous but hollow victory.
On my second to last night in Jeddah, I went to dinner with Sarah and another friend at a Lebanese restaurant overlooking the Red Sea. The temperature was cool for the region, a balmy 88 degrees, and the staff had made the energy-inefficient move of opening the floor-to-ceiling windows while continuing to blast the AC. We ordered grape mint hookah and watched stray cats chase one another across the beach. After dinner, we walked to the northern part of the Corniche. It was the type of public space that hasn’t really existed in Jeddah until recently. Mixed-gender groups of teens clustered together on rugs sipping Arabic coffee and taking selfies. Two young sisters, dressed in matching princess dresses, piloted tiny pink SUVs as their parents ambled happily behind them. “Now when they’re older they’ll be able to do that in a real car,” my friend observed.
Watching the little girls rumble over the cobblestones, I thought of Sarah driving herself to class, and Enaam taking her kittens to the vet, Amal at home waiting for her father’s permission to go to the dentist. I also thought about all the problems we share: freely making decisions about our own bodies, securing an equal wage, walking safely alone in the dark. Upending the entire system at once is mustahil, I know. But it’s difficult to be patient in times like these.
*Name has been changed