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June 17 is “I will drive the car myself day” in Saudi Arabia. Here’s why that matters.
Something else eroding the driving ban is that for many Saudi families, and divorced women, drivers are an economic hardship. In addition to a monthly salary ranging between $300 to $400, they have to be fed and housed. Most of these drivers are foreigners from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and the Philippines.
One Saudi prince recently estimated that letting women drive would be result in an estimated 750,000 foreign drivers being repatriated and thus reduce the 8 million-strong expatriate worker population.
Households with several females means they have to adjust their schedules around a shared driver — unless a brother, husband or son is around to drive them to school, hairdresser, doctor and drug store.
Since there are no public transportation systems, women lacking drivers or relatives free to transport them have to depend on taxis. And these are often unreliable or unpleasant, smelling of cigarette smoke or lacking seat belts. The drivers don’t always know how to get to a desired destination.
In recent months, more and more women have been breaking the ban and driving themselves. Sometimes they get away with it. Sometimes they get caught. When that happens, they are brought to a police station until their male guardian — usually husband or father — comes to pick them up and is forced to sign a pledge that he won’t let her drive again.
This lenient penalty is why many women were preparing to get behind the wheel on June 17.
But that is now in doubt. In recent days, the Ministry of Interior has been informally putting out the word to women: We don’t care if you drive on June 15 or June 16 or June 18 but don’t even think about driving on June 17 unless you want to end up like Manal Al Sharif with an extended stay in jail.
The ministry’s mixed message reflects the government’s muddled stance on the matter as it tries to please two divergent constituencies.
It has already had an effect, with some women announcing that they have decided to drive on another day, not on the 17th.
They appear to see a detour, not a stop sign, in the road up ahead.