Latifa Al-Zahrani

Latifa Al-Zahrani

Journalist

Critical issues arise for Saudi women ahead of driving ban lift

Only a few days separate women in Saudi Arabia from the driver’s seat. The Kingdom is counting down to the lift of an enduring driving ban on women, and one of the most historic developments reshaping its sociocultural dynamics. Now, Saudi women are raising questions – and somewhat, concerns – around just how far and wide the ban lift’s practical and legislative extent will be; from their ability to road travel to neighboring countries like Bahrain, to job restrictions in the automotive, mechanics and transport sectors.

Building bridges

As the decree allowing women in the Kingdom to drive takes full effect on June 24, the Saudi ambassador to neighboring Bahrain, Dr. Abdullah bin Abdulmalik Al-Sheikh, has announced a cross-border agreement empowering both current Bahraini and future Saudi female drivers.

In a press statement on June 18, Al-Shaikh revealed Bahraini women will be able to travel by car and cross the border between Bahrain and Saudi Arabia via the connecting King Fahd bridge as of June 24 – the same date the driving ban lift decree comes into effect.

The decision will dually apply to both Saudi and Bahraini female drivers, Al-Shaikh clarified, noting that there will be no constraints on Bahraini women driving across the border and into the Kingdom without the company of a “mahram” (In Islam, non-marriageable men who typically accompany women during their travels).

To this point, the ambassador reiterated the leadership decree’s stipulation that men and women be treated equally before traffic codes and laws. However, Al-Shaikh stressed, Saudi women’s right to travel abroad and without the company of a mahram is governed by other regulations and systems that are not related to traffic law.

Licensing rules

So long as Saudi women’s driving setup complies with Sharia law and teachings, and with moral codes of public decency and respect, Al-Shaikh believed King Salman bin Abdulaziz acted as a guardian to Saudi women’s right to drive, particularly during a transformative period for the Kingdom in all its sociocultural facets.

The Saudi General Department of Traffic had already begun replacing international driving licenses held by Saudi women with national equivalent licenses a few weeks earlier; nine Saudi women who held foreign licenses recognized by Saudi traffic law obtained their first national licenses, after having undergone practical driving assessment and eligibility tests.

International driver’s licenses were submitted and authenticated via the Saudi driver’s license “electronic gate”, the traffic department affirmed at the time, after which holders were granted permission to convert and replace them with national licenses.

Moreover, female visitors to the kingdom who held international and foreign driving licenses recognized by Saudi traffic law can drive using these license for a year from their date of entry into the Kingdom, or from the license expiry date – whichever is nearest. Naturally, Bahraini women crossing the border into Saudi Arabia are governed by these same conditions.

Mechanical ban

Meanwhile, Khaled Abalkhail, spokesman for the Saudi Ministry of Labor and Social Development, said that the mechanics field remains restricted to women in the Kingdom.

Speaking to national newspaper Al Watan, Abalkhail revealed that in the books and as per the ministry’s laws and regulations, Saudi women are not allowed to enter the mechanics job market; restrictions that, nonetheless, can be revisited and removed in line with the decision allowing Saudi women to drive.

And there have been significant moves in this direction and in industries adjacent to the mechanical field. In March 2018, 117 Saudi female interns concluded a 16-hour vehicle maintenance, officially certified training workshop, under “Atqen” (which translates into “Excel”), a communal training group working in partnership with the Technical and Vocational Training Corporation, among other local private and public entities.

During the workshop, trainees were taken through lessons and sessions covering everything from basic traffic knowledge, to emergency and routine repairs, to vehicle diagnosis and testing.

School transport

Quoting sources with knowledge of the matter, local news outlet Sabq has reported that there are no regulations restricting Saudi women from working as drivers in the school transport field.

In fact, these sources added that the General Transport Authority will speed up women’s entry to this field with a specialized “school transport” driving license, separately from that issued to heavy vehicle drivers – currently, the latter serves dually as a license for school bus drivers.

It is an option that the authority has been assessing for a number of months, and that is in the approval stages. For now, the delays in passing this decision will not pose an obstacle to women who want to work in school transport, the authority affirmed,  granted that they obtain a heavy vehicle driving license in the interim.

On a macro level, Saudi women’s employment in the transport field will have nationwide economic implications, particularly in reducing the dependency on foreign workforce with a strong and qualified local talent pool.

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