Women sign up to be Saudi’s first female taxi drivers
KHOBAR - Hunched over platters of dates and Arabic coffee, Saudi women raring to drive once a government ban ends next June signed up for another revolution -- to be the kingdom's first female cab drivers.
King Salman last month decreed that women will be allowed driving permits, a historic reform that could put not just millions of women behind the wheel but potentially many more into the workforce.
Sensing a lucrative opportunity, ride-hailing company Careem says it plans to hire up to 100,000 female chauffers to lure new clients in the gender-segregated kingdom.
This week, the company invited AFP to its first recruitment session in the coastal city of Khobar, which attracted a diverse crowd -- from housewives to working women -- who already have foreign driving licences.
"For years I felt helpless. My car would be parked outside and I could not drive," said Nawal al-Jabbar, a 50-year-old mother of three, sipping coffee from a thimble-sized cup.
A chorus of hoots and claps erupted in the auditorium as the women, who learned about the recruitment by word-of-mouth, watched news footage on a projector screen of last month's royal decree.
"It felt like we had woken up in a new Saudi Arabia," Jabbar said.
An instructor stood next to the screen, holding up a smartphone to show the inner workings of the app.
The firm plans to add a new "Captinah" button to the app next June that would allow customers to choose women chauffeurs. The option will only be available to other women and families, Careem spokesman Murtadha Alalawi said.
Around 30 women registered for the event in Khobar.
Many arrived unaccompanied by men, something not commonly seen in a country where male "guardians" have arbitrary authority to make crucial decisions on behalf of women.
- 'Rite of passage' -
"This is a rite of passage for women," said Sarah Algwaiz, director of the women chauffeurs program at Careem, referring to the reform.
"For women to drive their own cars signals autonomy, mobility and financial independence."
The Gulf kingdom was the only country in the world to ban women from taking the wheel, and it was seen globally as a symbol of repression.
For decades, hardliners cited austere Islamic interpretations to justify the ban, with some maintaining women lack the intelligence to drive and that allowing them to would promote promiscuity.
"Society portrays women to be strong when it's convenient and weak when it's convenient," said trainee Jabbar.
"I say if you can depend on a female doctor to deliver a baby, then you can depend on a woman to drive a car."
The lifting of the driving ban has been widely credited to 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who styles himself as a moderniser in the conservative kingdom, where more than half the population is aged under 25.
Prince Mohammed has cracked down on dissent while also showing a rare willingness to tackle entrenched Saudi taboos such as promoting more women in the workforce.
Becoming a chauffeur would mean "extra income", said Banain al-Mustafa, a 24-year-old medical lab technician who obtained her license while she was studying in West Virginia in 2015.
"I drove for two-and-a-half years," she said, including once on her own in a nine-hour road trip from New York to West Virginia.
"If I can drive there, why not in my own country?"
- Cultural backlash -
The reform is in line with the kingdom's Vision 2030 programme that seeks to elevate women to nearly one-third of the workforce, up from about 22 percent now.
Authorities have highlighted the economic benefits of the reform as the kingdom reels from a protracted oil slump; Saudi families would no longer need foreign chauffeurs, often a major source of financial strain.
Riyadh is moving to bring female driving instructors from abroad, local media reported, and Princess Nourah University said it will inaugurate a women's only driving school.
Authorities this week warned against violations of the ban until it is formally lifted after a woman was filmed driving out of a luxury hotel in Riyadh.
Careem said it would wait for government regulations to be formally announced before putting female recruits behind the wheel.
Its rival Uber is reportedly planning a similar initiative to recruit female drivers.
The new Careem recruits in Khobar were seemingly unperturbed by pockets of resistance from men or sexist comments on social media over women driving.
"Look at how women's abayas have evolved -- different styles and colours -- despite strong resistance," Jabbar said, referring to the traditional black gown.
"After a while, even women drivers will become a new normal."