Saudi Women Can Finally Drive, As Ban Is Lifted
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now we head to Saudi Arabia where, for the first time in decades, women have the right to drive.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Cheering).
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Foreign language spoken).
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Laughter).
MARTIN: That tape was recorded by The Guardian. And now we turn to Aryn Baker. She is a journalist and Middle East bureau chief for Time magazine. She's taken a spin with a few of the new women drivers, and she's with us on the line now from Riyadh in Saudi Arabia.
Aryn, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.
ARYN BAKER: A pleasure.
MARTIN: So tell us about some of the reactions you've been hearing from women today.
BAKER: It's been great. They have been really well received out on the roads when they're driving. One bakery is giving away a dozen donuts to any woman who comes in with a Saudi driver's license. The Four Seasons Hotel is giving out boxes of chocolate to women with Saudi driver's license. I had a friend who pulled up her car at the Four Seasons to the valet, and he was so happy that valet parked her car for free.
MARTIN: (Laughter) OK. Why has the ban been lifted now?
BAKER: I think it's been something that's been in the works for years, if not longer - decades. Women have been pushing for the right to drive for obvious reasons. But the kingdom is also, I think, getting tired of the bad PR, to be perfectly honest. It came up every time somebody from Saudi went abroad. Well, you don't let women to drive. Why should we do foreign direct investment? Why should we help you? Why - you know. I think it became a thorn in their side, so I think it was pressure in that way.
MARTIN: You took a ride this morning with a woman who's working for Careem, the Middle East equivalent of Uber, and it was her first day on the job. And let's hear a little bit of what she had to say.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I mean, when I was young, I saw a movie about a female taxi driver, and the personality, everything she went through with it - what to me was a strong woman. And I just remembered that is what I wanted to be.
MARTIN: But she also told you that she feels conflicted.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Sometimes, I want to wave at every car passing by, saying, like, hey, look at me. At the same time, also, I'm like, OK. Don't make eye contact. We don't want any attention. We don't want police to look at us. It's, like, no, no, no. It's OK.
MARTIN: You know, well, what about that, Aryn? I mean, have any of the women you've spoken with expressed any other fears about driving? And are there any specific rules for female drivers exclusively that men don't have to follow?
BAKER: Well, I think it's just a big step for women. I mean, women in the past, activists that have gone driving, have been arrested, have been detained. In general, women are watched in society. Up until about a year ago, there was a religious police that kind of watched everything you did and could take you to jail or could fine you if you were wearing your headscarf wrong. So there's a real sensitivity to being seen that I think - you know, you can't stop that overnight with the ability to drive.
So that's one thing. And then, in fact, there are no real particular rules for women drivers except for the license exam and test. They have to do about 30 hours of classroom and in-car training before they can get their license. And that's much more strict than male drivers.
MARTIN: That would seem a significant barrier. I mean (laughter)...
BAKER: It would.
MARTIN: Yeah. I mean, you mentioned that, even as the ban has been lifted, six female activists, some of whom campaigned for the right to drive, are still in jail. Now, they've been there since May, when the Saudi government started cracking down on dissent. Do many of the women you've talked to know about this? I mean, what do we make of this?
BAKER: Yeah, everybody knows about it. Everybody talks about it. But no one will talk about it on the record. There's a real palpable sense of not knowing what you can and what you can't talk about in terms of women's rights or human rights in the Kingdom. And people will choose just not to talk about it at all. So everybody knows them by name, but nobody wants to really bring attention to the issue for fear of bringing attention on themselves.
MARTIN: And do we know what's happening with those women who are still in jail?
BAKER: We hear that they're in detention. Some have been accused - not officially, but in the newspapers - of treason, which can carry up to a 20-year jail sentence. Some of them have been refused abilities to leave the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Some of them are worried about coming back if they're activists from outside. So there's a real sense that they're in deep trouble, and nobody knows what's going to happen next.
MARTIN: That's Aryn Baker of Time magazine. She joined us on the line from Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, where women are now allowed to drive.
Aryn Baker, thanks so much for being with us.
BAKER: A great pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.