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History in the making

Saudi women take life-altering first step to receiving once-forbidden licenses

My first driving experience came at age 10.

My grandfather, “Bendaddy” (my namesake), refurbished an old CJ5 Army Jeep that I would drive through the woods, down “Benna Trail” or “Nana Boulevard” or “Hannah Lane” — trails he built on his 50-acre farm and named after his 12 grandkids.

When I was 12 years old, I was driving through the fields and over the dunes of Cumberland Island, Ga., in a neighbor’s Jeep with Coca Cola logos.

Both vehicles from my childhood were equipped with manual transmissions and learning to drive an ancient manual transmission wasn’t easy. But we didn’t know any different. That’s just how it was.

In June 2001, at a small DMV in Brunswick, Ga., I got my license. “Here is your driver’s license ma’am,” said the clerk. Those were magical words.

I remember vividly when I first held that hot-off-the-press, shiny little plastic card with my picture on it and feeling like my whole life just started. It was exhilarating.

Earlier this year, I watched young women in Saudi Arabia get their first chance behind a steering wheel. The experience was uplifting, exciting — and humbling.

Lives forever changed

This June, women will have the legal right to drive for the first time in the Saudi Kingdom. To help them gain experience and build confidence behind the wheel, Ford Motor Company Fund held a Ford Driving Skills for Life (DSFL) event in Jeddah. The program introduced more than 180 women to the basics of driving.

Women in Saudi Arabia live very different lives than mine. Saudi women must get permission from their male guardian to do things like travel, get a job or go to school.

For a Western woman like myself, traveling to Saudi Arabia can be daunting. The thought of having to wear a gown, known as an abaya, to essentially become invisible and drape a scarf, a hijab, over your head prompts an immediate uneasiness of how you will be treated. It is not something we’re used to in the West.

The cultural initiation to Saudi Arabia starts on the flight.

After the safety presentation, a three-minute prayer to Allah video asking for His blessing of our journey plays on the screen. Flight attendants offer dates and a hot beverage from an elaborate silver kettle. As the plane nears its destination, locals make their way to the bathroom where they shed their Western attire, returning dressed in the required attire for Saudi Arabian Muslims. Men wear a thobe. Women put on their abaya.

Even in March, the heat can be suffocating, all the more so because of the abaya a woman wears over her body.

The separation of the sexes starts at passport control. At one side of the room is a women-only line for local Muslims.

The Ford DSFL driver training was at Jeddah’s Effat University, a higher education institution for women only. My group consisted of six women.

Standing in a parking lot in the blazing sun, there was a nervous excitement. Some of the women thought Ford DSFL was just a classroom course and didn’t realize it included real experience behind the wheel. When they found out, they were hesitant. Several had never so much as sat in the driver’s seat of a car — or felt what happens when you tap an accelerator.

“What is the first thing you are going to do when you get your driver’s license?” I asked one of the women as we waited.

“Call my dad and tell him, ‘Dad, buy me a car, I finally have my driver’s license,’” she replied.

We laughed — and probably not for the same reason.

Saudi Arabia is a wealthy welfare state in which the public pays no taxes, yet receives widespread services from free education and health to water and electricity. People don’t think twice about buying expensive things. I can only imagine the reaction from my father if I asked him the same thing on the day I left the DMV.

Another girl said she would take her siblings to the McDonald’s drive-thru. Another said she was going to get a pink car. The backpack she was carrying was pink; she wore pink shoes; and I can only assume the clothing underneath her abaya was pink.

The drive of a lifetime

When the female instructor asked our group to get in the car to start the driving session, the women were like kids at the top of a big water slide, each telling the other one to go first.

Sitting in the backseat with other women, I took in the moment as the first volunteer took in the experience of being in the driver’s seat and behind the wheel for the first time. I could see the whole world open up in front of her.

Up to this point in her life, she had always relied on a male driver hired to shuttle she and her family wherever they needed to go. She squeezed the steering wheel at 10 and 2, gazed around the dashboard as if she had never seen it before. She intently took in the instructions on what the gauges and dials meant.

The instructor explained the appropriate positioning behind the wheel, not too close, not too far. The women didn’t know purpose of different gears, especially neutral. The best part was when the instructor told the new driver to tap the accelerator while the car was in park so she could get a feel for the pedal. She laughed along with the women in the back when they heard the roar of the engine — almost as if the car was telling them their journey behind the wheel was about to begin.

Then, she pushed in the brake, moved the gearshift to “D” and eased forward. We were going 3 mph, but my heart was racing for her.

She was grinning ear to ear with nervous joy. We eased around the small coned course, hitting a top speed of maybe 7 mph. The women in back, all in their late teens and early 20s, silently looked around as if their surroundings were moving past us at twice our speed. They were enamored with the thought that their friend was driving and they were next.

I thought of myself having a similar experience at age 10 and tried to relate to these women. Only part of me could.

The driving lesson done, the women went to a small room and took a survey to see how much they learned. Afterward, they each received a medal and a certificate. You would have thought it was an Olympic medal.

One woman put it on immediately, held it in her hand, and glanced down at it, smiling as she walked out of the classroom. She looked proud and excited for what that little medal represented — a new way of life she never thought possible.

No longer beginners

Saudi women are gaining significant independence for the first time in their lives. They have driven their lives academically and professionally by studying to become contributors in their fields. However, soon they will take the wheel for the first time and drive themselves to where they need, and want, to be.

I asked a couple of the women if they remembered where they were when they learned about the royal decree allowing them to drive.

One saw it on social media and didn’t believe it; so, she turned to the state-run news station and discovered it was real, after all.

“I didn’t think I would ever learn to drive,” Bushra Yaqub said. “My life has just changed forever.”

Bushra will no longer have to wait for her brother or dad or family driver to pick her up.

I could relate to this. I remember how frustrating it was to wait for my mom to pick me up after school.

Now, Bushra can take herself to and from her activities and school as she pleases.

“We are not beginners anymore,” Aisha Abbass, another enthusiastic student, said. “I didn’t believe, didn’t think, I would learn to drive because I wouldn’t get the opportunity to take a course. But when Ford offered it on campus, it was possible. We actually got to feel what it is like to be behind the wheel and use the pedals. I never thought I would experience this, and now I feel like I can do anything. I am so happy and grateful.”

A number of women did not participate in the program for several reasons, including family approval. But there also were hesitation and reluctance about this monumental change. Some women want to see how it goes for others before deciding whether they want to get their own driver’s license.

I look forward to hearing their stories after they hear the words, “Here is your driver’s license, ma’am.”

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