Saudis stall in shift to women drivers

Saudi women walk from a shopping mall as they wait for their driver to pick them up in Riyadh.

TEXT OF STORY

KAI RYSSDAL: For most of us the drive to work is at best a chore, at worst a complete waste of a couple of hours. But at least there's the option. In Saudi Arabia, strict religious laws mean women aren't allowed behind the wheel. So, to get around they have a couple of choices. They get a male relative to give 'em a ride. Or they can hire a driver. There's been talk that women might be able to get licenses within the next couple of years. But in the meanwhile many women who can't drive can't work, either. Kelly McEvers reports.


KELLY MCEVERS: Hana Mohammad is a single mom with five children. Four of these
children are girls. That means Hana's family has not one but two drivers. One to ferry the girls to school. And one to take her to work.

Not the ideal situation. But Hana managed, until late last year. A problem with her daughters' driver.

Hana Mohammad: He was really very bad driver. He made an accident with
my daughter.

So Hana fired him and gave her driver to her daughters. She was in-between jobs at the time.

She then applied to bring another driver over from India. This costs thousands of dollars, plus hundreds more each month once he arrives. So much that the driver's salary eats up about a quarter of Hana's income. And, it can take months to process the driver's visa.

Hana: Well, it's a big problem for me. I get a job and I said, "No,
sorry, I can't start now."

McEvers: So, you got a job offer, and you had to turn it down?

Hana: Yeah, turned it down -- because nothing to do! I
cannot move now. I can't.

And now, Hana, who usually works as an executive secretary, is going stir crazy while she waits for the driver.

Hana: I cannot stay like this at home just watching TV and drinking coffee. It's not my personality at all.

Thing is, Hana's got it better than a lot of women here. Nurses and teachers cough up half to three-quarters of their income to pay for drivers.

[Tape of TV show]

This TV show shocked the country late last year by tackling the issues of poor women and women driving. After the main character's father dies, she disguises herself as a man, so she can drive a taxi and support the family.

We are all one, she sings. Why do men and women have to be separated?

That's the message some 3,000 women recently sent in a petition to Saudi King Abdullah, asking him to lift the driving ban. The king is actually seen as a reformer, an image that emerged during his own TV moment.

Barbara Walters: I'm Barbara Walters, and this is Nightline. Tonight, an exclusive interview with King Abdullah, ruler of Saudi Arabia.

Walters faced off with the king just after he took the throne, in 2005.

Walters: Would you support allowing a woman to drive?

KING Abdullah [through translator]: I believe strongly in the rights of
women. I believe the day will come when women drive.

Magazine editor Maha Akeel says most Saudis assumed that after the king made this statement the driving ban would be lifted.

Maha Akeel: That gave it sort of an official backing. But what is
missing now is clear directives that women can drive and can apply for a driver's license.

Religious officials keep delaying the process because they say society's just not ready for women to take to the streets. They say men would go crazy seeing all these women out in public, after being segregated for so long.

So, some lawmakers have proposed special driving hours for women, special lanes, even pink cabs like they have in neighboring countries like Dubai and Bahrein.

Maha: These are cabs driven by women and for women only.

So far, though, there's been no movement on these proposals. And even though organizers of a recent car show made a point to invite women, they told them to bring their drivers, too.

In Dammam, Saudi Arabia, I'm Kelly McEvers for Marketplace.

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