Shahad Alfadeel learned how to drive around the same time most American teens do — at 16.
But Alfadeel isn’t your typical American teen. She’s a Saudi citizen who has spent the last five years living in Lawrence while her parents worked toward doctoral degrees at the University of Kansas.
Alfadeel, now 17, knew having a driver’s license (she’s still waiting for her dad to save up for a car before she makes it official) would make life easier in Lawrence. She just never expected to be able to drive back home in Saudi Arabia.
Not in her lifetime, anyway.
“I would’ve never thought in a million years that my country was going to say, ‘OK, we’ll let women drive,’” said Alfadeel, now in her freshman year studying pre-pharmacy at KU.
But just last week, that’s exactly what happened. The Saudi government announced last Tuesday that women would soon be allowed to drive for the first time in the conservative kingdom’s history.
Saudi Arabia was the only country in the world to bar women from driving, with clerics arguing for years that allowing women to drive would corrupt society and lead to sin.
Alfdaeel said she and her sister, also a KU student, “couldn’t wait to drive there.” One perk of finally being able to drive legally by June 2018: Alfadeel’s summer vacations back home in Medina will soon be a lot cheaper.
“We always have to use Uber or Careem,” Alfadeel said of Saudi Arabia’s ride-hailing services. “We spend so much money on that.”
How much? About 200 American dollars a week, Alfadeel guesses. Women’s rights activists have long argued that the Saudi ban on female drivers has made virtual prisoners out of women who don’t have a male relative or personal chauffeur to drive them around.
Ghufran Al Ghafli, a first-year pharmacy student at KU, generally agrees with that assessment. The 20-year-old Saudi citizen, who has spent more than half her life (excluding summers) in the U.S., thinks government scholarships for Saudi students to study in Western countries may have contributed to efforts in recent years to lift the driving ban.
“They go back to Saudi Arabia and they feel like they’re in jail because they can’t drive,” said Al Ghafli, whose parents and siblings have all attended KU.
She later added, “In America, you don’t have to schedule an appointment to go to the supermarket, for example.”
You also don’t have to rely on male chaperones for a ride to work every day, as Al Ghafli’s older sister, a physician, does back home in Saudi Arabia.
She’s lived there her entire life, so she’s never had a chance to learn how to drive, Al Ghafli said. That’s not the case with Ghufran and her younger sister, Bayan, a freshman at KU.
Their mother, who learned to drive studying abroad in California as a young woman, never had time to teach the girls while finishing up her master’s degree at KU. But their older brother Hassan, also a Lawrence resident, has been giving them lessons for a few months now.
Bayan, who graduated early last year from Free State High School, hopes to have her license by the end of 2017.
She plans to eventually “go back to my country and teach the people what I’ve learned from my experience being abroad.” And she says every woman she knows back home has been thrilled with the prospect of finally being able to drive.
“I was in class when this new law came out. My phone was blowing up and I was like, ‘What’s going on?’” recalled Bayan, who is majoring in pre-pharmacy and hopes to become a doctor. “Everyone was so happy. It’s a big milestone.”
Her mother, Fatimah Al Ghafli, always drove slowly — and with extreme caution — when traveling around Lawrence. (She has since returned to Saudi Arabia after receiving her master’s degree in mathematics earlier this year.)
Alfadeel, who graduated early from Lawrence High School this past spring, recounted similar experiences behind the wheel with her mother, who received her license a few years ago.
“She is really slow. You would never want to be with her in the car,” jokes Alfadeel, who said her mom learned through a local driving school because her dad “couldn’t handle being in the car with her.”
During summer vacations in Saudi Arabia, Alfadeel’s grandfather would teach the girls basic driving skills out in the desert, where she and female relatives could practice without fear of being caught. Her aunts have their own drivers, but insisted upon learning to drive, Alfadeel said, because they wanted to be among the first female drivers in the country when Saudi Arabia eventually lifted the driving ban.
They always felt their day would come, Alfadeel said. With that day just eight months away, Alfadeel said she’s worried officials haven’t done enough to prepare for the onslaught of new drivers. Infrastructure and driver education are her biggest concerns.
“I think in (eight) months our country cannot make the roads wider and have more parking and add so many driving schools,” she said.
Reem Al-Samiri, a fourth-year doctoral student in the KU School of Education, also expected a more gradual introduction of the new driving laws, perhaps first prioritizing women with jobs or other responsibilities where the need for a license might be greater.
But the 30-year-old mother of two also said she’s thrilled to see the change. After five years studying in the U.S., she’s grown accustomed to the freedom that comes with a driver’s license. She and her husband, a fellow doctoral student at KU, agreed it would make life easier for their young family while in Lawrence, Al-Samiri said.
Growing up, her family chose not to hire a full-time driver because her father and older brother always accommodated their female relatives whenever they needed rides, Al-Samiri said. Later, as an undergrad in Saudi Arabia, Al-Samiri had to hire a private driver to shuttle her back and forth between classes every day, paying him on a monthly basis. By that time, she was married and no longer living at home with her family, which she said made her reliant on paid drivers.
Al-Samiri guesses most women in her situation have likely made similar arrangements with Saudi Arabia’s “drivers per ride.”
“I think there are some people in society that aren’t ready, but this issue has been lingering for so long,” said Al-Samiri, who disagrees with concerns about traffic flow.
If anything, she said, the influx of female drivers might lessen the number of cars on the road, with women no longer dependent on taxis, ride-hailing services or chauffeurs.
She sees “a lot of opportunities and a lot of potential” in Saudi Arabia, where she’d eventually like to return after finishing her studies at KU.
Her 10-year-old son, Yousef, couldn’t believe the news at first, Al-Samiri said. He has grown up seeing his mom behind the wheel in the States, and was “very excited” at the prospect of his mother having the same freedom in her home country, Al-Samiri said.
Jenna, her almost-4-year-old daughter, likely doesn’t grasp the significance just yet. But Al-Samiri felt it was important to celebrate the news with her daughter when she picked Jenna up from pre-school the day King Salman issued his royal decree last week.
“I felt like I needed to celebrate that with her even though she had no idea what I’m talking about,” Al-Samiri said.
Al-Samiri gave the little girl a big hug — and a heartfelt congratulations, she said.
“I’m excited for her to grow up with that being the norm, you know?” Al-Samiri said. “I could be there as a reminder for her to appreciate all the good things she has. But I see her growing up to be an independent woman, strong, succeeding on her own.”
She also sees the lift of the ban on female drivers as a sign of more progress to come. Al-Samiri points to other recent milestones, such as women finally being allowed to participate as voters and candidates in 2015’s municipal elections, as evidence that things are changing in Saudi Arabia.
What Saudi women still can't do
Saudi women may have won the right to drive but still face limitations in everyday life. Here are a few things women can’t do in Saudi Arabia, according to a recent report by the Human Rights Watch:
- Women are not allowed to wed without the consent of their male guardians.
- A woman also needs a male guardian’s consent to divorce, and, until the divorce is finalized, a woman’s husband remains her legal guardian. Men may also petition the courts to forcibly divorce a female relative from her husband if the man considers the marriage “unfit.”
- Women are blocked from retaining custody of their children in a divorce after the kids reach a certain age — 7 for boys, 9 for girls.
- Women are banned from traveling abroad without consent of a male guardian. They also are unable to obtain passports or IDs without male permission.
- A woman needs the permission of a male guardian before opening her own bank account. Women can’t open bank accounts for their children without written consent from the child’s father.
- Women must obey Saudi Arabia’s strict Sharia law, which requires women to cover their bodies (in a full-length black abaya) when in public. Sharia inheritance laws also mandate that daughters receive only half of what is awarded to their brothers.
- A woman must have the permission of a male guardian before receiving certain medical treatments, including elective surgery and some life-saving procedures.