The first day of the rest of their lives

Guest Storyteller | Saudi Arabia | 30.06.2018

 On Sunday, June 24, 2018, the decades-long driving ban was lifted in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. We experience the historic event through the eyes of a Saudi woman and a man, who are both Jeddah-based storytellers.

The first day of the rest of her life

By Layan Damanhouri

I have a vivid memory of getting in the driver’s seat of our minivan when I was 16. As my dad was teaching me my first driving lesson and introducing me to the gearbox, I was impatient to start the car right away.

 

He told me to give a go on the accelerator while the car was still parked. I imagined it to be similar to a videogame so I pressed hard on the gas pedal and was met with a startling sound from the engine.

 

Despite this stunt, however, I quickly picked it up and was glad I was a natural! Soon after, I looked forward to every rare chance of a driving lesson with my dad.

 

I don’t think anyone forgets the first time they get behind the wheel; the moment you feel like an adult. You feel independent and confident. 

 

By 12th grade, boys my age were getting their driving licenses and I couldn’t help but feel resentment and couldn’t make sense of why we couldn’t have that right.

 

I could notice that when a teenager gets his first car, something changes about him as he moves into a different phase of his life. He starts carrying himself differently,  feeling independent and responsible.

 

I consider myself lucky to have a supportive father who encouraged me to drive. There are many Saudi men who respect and choose to empower the women in their lives. Many other women, however, don’t enjoy the same treatment.

 

Throughout the years, there has been gradual progress in women’s rights, yet now the lift of the driving ban was a loud and clear message that it’s time for a real change and that every woman will be supported despite where she comes from and whom she lives with.

 

A wave of celebration overcame cities in the kingdom Saturday night. It was a rare occasion on which the whole nation was discussing one thing only: women are driving in their country.

 

For every woman who got catcalled in the street as she waited for a taxi or got into a car accident by a reckless driver because she had to carpool to work, those days are over.

 

I felt proud seeing women ecstatic and congratulating each other. It’s finally become a reality and it felt incredible.

 

The following morning, I set out to meet my friend, one of the first to get a driver’s license, and we greeted each other with cheers. 

 

It felt unusual getting in the front seat.

 

We set out on the road without a destination in mind.  It felt like we were discovering our hometown for the first time.  We extended our ride as much as we could until we picked a café we saw on the way.

 

At the parking lot when we arrived, people on the sidewalk couldn’t help but stare and attempted to hide their smiles. Funnily enough, it’s a scene we’re not used to yet.

 

It felt unusual to be able to go and leave without worrying about getting dropped off or getting stuck somewhere.

 

Apart from being able to move freely (and finally enjoy driving!), what I look forward to is the change we’re about to embark on.

 

This week, both men and women were greeting a new era in Saudi Arabia. The struggle would finally be over, not just with driving but in other aspects we felt powerless in as well.

 

No longer will it be a man’s world. 

 

***

The first day of the rest of his life

By Waleed Alghamdi

 

Sunday, June 24 (Day 1)

 

As I lifted my index finger off the push-start ignition late Sunday morning, I anticipated the moment I would find females driving through Jeddah’s streets alongside us men. Steering out of my garage, I immediately found myself glancing right and left in search of the first lady behind a wheel. Finding my actions rather silly, I entered the freeway and made my way over to my favorite breakfast spot. Unfortunately, I failed to encounter that first female driver during my ride over.

 

As I approached the restaurant, I found an unusual sight. Painted right in between the lines of my typical parking spot was a pink stiletto, which I correctly assumed translated to ‘reserved for women’. With a smile, I parked a few spots down.

 

Credit: Waleed Alghamdi 

 

I loved the idea.  Seeing as how both Saudi men and women have been very enthusiastic and open-minded about the historic decision, I wasn’t at all surprised by the kind gesture. However, this should be more of a temporary gesture. We obviously don’t want high heels in parking spots to become a norm similar to handicap parking. Women being allowed to drive should be considered an inalienable right, rather than a privilege. Plus, I kind of want my parking spot back!

 

Monday, June 25 (Day 2)

A day since the lifting of the ban, I was determined to fulfil ‘Operation Spot a Female Driving’. Heading for the door, I was called over by my mother. 

 

I’ll text you a couple of items I’d like you to pick up from the bookstore on your way back.’

 

‘Sure, no problem.’

 

Heading once again for the door, I halted and walked back over to my mother.

 

‘Let me see your hand.’

 

She extended her right arm and opened her hand. 

 

I placed my car keys on the center of her palm.

 

‘Let’s see that US driver’s license in action.’

 

Surprisingly, she immediately got prepared and we headed out.

 

With me in the passenger seat, she started the engine and off we went. I felt proud that my mother got the chance to be a part of this historic moment in Saudi Arabian history as she had never expected to see this in her lifetime.

 

We approached the bookstore and she opted to park rather far from the entrance.

 

‘There are so many spots up close!’

 

‘I don’t want to park in front of the entrance! Let’s avoid the commotion and cheering.’

 

With time, this will become normal for Saudi women and men alike, even for the far-right conservatives. The decision will surely have a positive effect on Saudi culture. I expect a more open-minded society that will help do away with previous stereotypes plagued on Saudi Arabia’s people regarding gender equality. The next generation will grow up in an era where the topic of ‘women driving’ isn’t even interesting because it is the norm. It’s natural. They wouldn’t know Saudi Arabia any other way and that’s how it ought to be.

 

Tuesday, June 26 (Day 3)

 

Walking out of the gym Tuesday evening, I noticed an identical copy of my car pull up and park next to mine. As I approached my car, the driver of the other car hopped out.

 

؛Is my parking fine, or am I too close to your car?’

 

It was a girl! Driving the same car as mine! In Saudi Arabia!

 

‘Yeah, you’re fine! I’m the one parked a little off, but I’m leaving anyways. And congrats on driving!’

 

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