Saudi Arabia’s ban on women driving will finally be lifted later this month—and some women are already gearing up for a life in the fast line.
Elena Bukaryeva, a 39-year-old Ukranian, has been instructing four Saudi women in motorcycle driving since February at the Bikers Skills Institute, a privately-owned driving school in Riyadh that now holds weekly lessons for women. Bukaryeva didn’t want the cost of learning (1,500 riyals for the course), a low number of women instructors or negative pressure from families to hold women back from their hard-won right to drive.
The women riding still face many obstacles, including practical riding clothes. In lessons they can wear Harley Davidson T-shirts and skinny jeans—and knee pads, of course—but such clothing would not be allowed on the streets of Riyadh. The abaya robes, historically required attire for women in public, are dangerous to wear while riding—the long hems could easily get caught in the wheels.
Women in Saudi Arabia still face many challenges in their fight for legal and social equality. Most oppressive of all is Saudi Arabia’s “guardianship” law, which requires all women to be supervised by a male guardian; women cannot get a passport, hold a job, attend university or get married without this guardian’s permission.
Many women activists who were long involved in the campaign against the driving ban are also facing retaliation: 17 people were detained by the Saudi government this month for “undermining” the security of the kingdom, and government-backed media has published photographs of driving activists with “traitor” written over them. “It’s a complete contradiction for the government to proclaim it is in favor of new freedoms for women,” Samah Hadid, the director of Amnesty International’s Middle East campaigns, said to AFP, “and then target and detain women for demanding those freedoms.”
Even still, women on the ground in Saudi Arabia are anxiously awaiting the end of the driving ban on June 24, including Bukaryeva’s students. “I can summarize the whole experience of riding a bike in one word,” 19-year-old Tinawi said. “Freedom.”