SUSRIS Editor’s Note:
A year ago we had a conversation with Kathy Cuddihy about her experiences as a self-described “once reluctant expat” and her book “Anywhere But Saudi Arabia.” In it she described what it was like to have a 24-year-long front row seat to a country in transition and to be a part of the rapidly developing city of Riyadh she first discovered in 1976. Cuddihy’s memoir documented her experiences and how her attitude transformed from initial reluctance and resistance to accept a transfer to Saudi Arabia, to a deep love and respect for its customs and people.
Cuddihy told SUSRIS that Saudi Arabia was a “blank slate” when she arrived. “Back then there were no stereotypes,” she said, adding, “It was as if you were talking about Mars. No one knew anything about it.” Nowadays Westerners have the opportunity to know much more about Saudi Arabia — hopefully in some measure through SUSRIS.com. One of the issues that captures their attention is the longstanding challenge for Saudi women to drive in the Kingdom. Little attention, however, is given to the question of non-Saudi women driving. Reliable numbers are not available on how many of the 5.5 million expats in Saudi Arabia are women, but whatever the number may be they are not legally on the Kingdom’s highways. Unlike most of their Saudi sisters the expat women may have arrived in the Kingdom after a lifetime of driving themselves when they needed to. Today we share the perspective of Kathy Cuddihy on women driving in Saudi Arabia and some of the frustrations that come with being an expat woman not behind the wheel in the Kingdom.
Cuddihy’s book, “Anywhere But Saudi Arabia: Experiences of a Once Reluctant Expat,” is now available in bookstores in the United States as well as Amazon.com.
Driven Women Kathy Cuddihy
As a young girl, I thought the epitome of luxury would be to have my own chauffeur-driven car. When my husband Sean was transferred to Saudi Arabia, this ambition was realised. Not quite in the elegant style I imagined, but I did have a driver.
A woman committing to living in Saudi also commits to retiring her car keys. Although I resented giving up what I considered to be a basic freedom, the situation wasn’t quite as bad as I had anticipated. Because there was no public transportation, Sean’s company provided shopping buses and a couple of personal drivers to be shared among the wives. Eventually I had my own driver. This made life easier but it didn’t reduce the counterbalance of frustrations that came with being driven:
- I didn’t have to worry about finding a parking space: my driver dropped me at the front door of wherever I was going. Instead, I worried about whether or not he’d remember to pick me up at the appointed time—or at all.
- I could send my driver on errands all over the city. Useful… except when he brought back the wrong items, forgot to do things or went to the wrong place.
- I didn’t have to cope with Riyadh traffic and the crazies who sped past on the inside emergency lane. I was too busy coping with my driver, reminding him to stop at stop signs, use his signal before turning, not to sit on the tail of the car in front and any one of a dozen other backseat recommendations.
It’s not illegal for women to drive in Saudi Arabia but it is illegal for them to drive without a Saudi license. And licenses aren’t issued to women. The embargo is purely cultural. A combination of deeply embedded tradition and a powerful religious establishment ensures that progress in the desert kingdom happens slowly.
The numerous anti-driving arguments put forward by conservatives who fear change have no foundation in common sense. This was most famously demonstrated by the cleric Sheikh Saleh Al Lohaidan who warned women that “physiological science” shows that driving “automatically affects the ovaries and pushes up the pelvis … and that is why children born to most women who continuously drive suffer from clinical disorders of varying degrees”.
Not far behind him on the silly scale, Sheik Mohammed al-Nujaimi, claimed that women driving was a “great danger”. He expressed the usual concerns: increased opportunity for adultery, broken marriages and more accidents. His addendum that allowing women to drive would result in “the spending of excessive amounts on beauty products” left everyone scratching their heads.
In November 1990, immediately before the start of the Gulf War, 47 women, accompanied by their husbands or male relatives, drove in convoy through the streets of Riyadh. The peaceful protest had dire consequences. The mutawwa whipped up widespread opposition resulting in the women being vilified and sometimes jailed, losing or being suspended from their jobs and having their passports taken away. As Madiha Al Ajroush, one of the participants, said, “Our sin was to deviate from the collective norm. For that we are persecuted.” The crack in the door to liberalisation had been slammed shut in no uncertain terms.
It took nearly 20 years, until June 2011, before the next driving crusade was organised. This one rode on the momentum of the Arab Spring; women from all over the kingdom joined the movement. This time there was comparatively little backlash from the general public.
In October 2013 the Ministry of Interior warned activists not to proceed with their planned drivathon but there were indications that the government might be wavering in its stance: token police checks were set up in downtown areas—where the women weren’t driving. The aftermath has been primarily that of growing support for lifting the ban.
The explosion of social media means that dissatisfactions once voiced privately now are shouted from cyberspace to the world. A youthful population that refuses to be disenfranchised fuels campaigns for more freedoms. In this country of over 12 million women, females are becoming more defiant, less pliable.
Saudi men need to look in their rearview mirrors: women drivers are speeding up the highway of change. It won’t be long before they catch up.
Kathy Cuddihy is author of “Anywhere But Saudi Arabia: Experiences of a Once Reluctant Expat.”
- Anywhere But Saudi Arabia: Experiences of a Once Reluctant Expat
- A-Z of Places and Things Saudi
- Saudi Customs and Etiquette
- Familiarity Breeds Content