Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Saudi Arabian Women Love Bumper Cars (But Not for Bumping)

  Excellent article in the June 20, 2016 Wall Street Journal by Margherita Stancati. You can link to the article here, story pasted in below.

Long lines for amusement-park driving sessions; ‘Please, don’t bump me!’

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia—Joudi al-Omeri drove in circles. And when cars came in her direction, she swerved. These were electric bumper cars, but in Saudi Arabia, the ride doesn’t always live up to its name.
“I come here to drive,” said Ms. al-Omeri, a 27-year-old homemaker still giddy from the roughly five-minute, mostly crash-free ride in her red-and-green two-seater. “It’s much better than bumping against others,” she adds.
The driving ban has helped lead to the flourishing of ride-hailing apps by companies like Uber Technologies Inc., which recently announced it received a $3.5 billion investment from Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund. A theme park in Jeddah holds a women-only night. Photo: Margherita Stancati/The Wall Street Journal 

At the weekly ladies-only night at the Al Shallal Theme Park in the coastal city of Jeddah, women discard head scarves and head-to-toe black gowns to reveal the latest trends—ripped jeans, tank tops, and tossed-to-the-side ’80s-style hair. For many of them, the biggest draw of the amusement park isn’t the few hours of fashion freedom. Instead, they go there to get behind the wheel—even a bumper-car wheel—in a country that bans female drivers.
There are no loud bangs or ferocious head-on crashes. There are a few slow-speed collisions, but also a lot of dodging, as many women are content with just gliding over the smooth surface. For some, the biggest risk of bumping into each other is while taking a selfi“They love driving the cars,” Aman al-Abadi, the ride attendant, said of the women who were getting back in line for another spin. “Men are always bumpingWith the exception of remote corners of the desert kingdom—where Bedouin women sometimes get behind the wheel—the amusement park offers a rare, hassle-free environment for women to hone their driving skills. That is partly why, on ladies nights, there is a winding queue at the bumper cars.
Outside the theme park, activists, writers and even some politicians now are pushing to lift the ban on driving actual cars. One of the strongest cases proponents make is financial: Many women, even those with jobs, simply can’t afford a driver.
In this conservative society, there are many who resist it, warning that allowing women to move freely without a male guardian would expose them to social evils and personal trouble.
Among them is Mohammed Bayea, who on mixed-gender evening at the amusement park was happily driving alongside several women on the crowded bumper-car platform. There was the occasional knock, but for the most part men and women steered clear of each other. The women wore traditional dress.
“It’s OK if they drive here,” said Mr. Bayea, a Riyadh native who was on vacation in Jeddah. But he said he wouldn’t want them driving in the real world. “I am a nice guy, I don’t flirt with women. But other men will.”
While women at Saudi Arabia’s amusement parks often seek a driving experience that mirrors crash-avoidance reality, men relish bashing into each other. When they take to the bumper cars, their goal—like pretty much everywhere else in the world—is to gather speed for maximum impact.
When it comes time for the women to drive in a mixed-gender theme park in the town of Abha, a big black curtain goes up around the bumper car platform to shield the female drivers from outside view. The cars resume driving in circles and the platform becomes placid again.
Some women have unwittingly breached the no-bumping etiquette. When, for the first time in years, Arwa al-Neami went on the bumper cars in the theme park in Abha, she decided to chase the other female drivers. She got a lot of angry shouting in return.
“They would scream: ‘Please, don’t bump me! I am trying to drive!’ ” says Ms. al-Neami, a Jeddah-based artist who began documenting the phenomenon in 2014 as part of an art project called Never Never Land.
Some women viewed the bumper car for what it was: Amusement. “It’s just a game,” said Darin Twergi, a student, with a shrug. “It’s not that big a deal if I drive or not.”
Others regard time spent in a brightly colored open-top vehicle with a hot rod attached to the ceiling as a serious practice session.
Before she moved abroad for university, Sama bin Mahfooz said she would go to the theme park in Jeddah especially to drive. “We never get a chance to in Saudi Arabia—this is the right place to do it,” says Ms. bin Mahfooz, 20. “Whenever my best friend would hit me, I would tell her: ‘No, let me drive, let me drive!’ ”
Her wealthier friends were less interested. They would say “we have drivers, we don’t need to do that,” she recalls.
In a country where only 23% of Saudi women have jobs, ladies-only nights bring women out in force. Every employee is in fact a woman, from the popcorn sellers to the security guards to the bumper car attendant. The men have the night off.
And while cinemas are normally banned, there are two of them in Al Shallal alone. Granted, the movies last under five minutes, and the experience is really just about the special effects: 3-D screens, seats that jolt and sprays of water.
For many women, the biggest attraction of ladies nights is simply a man-free world. One woman says she goes every week, ostensibly to accompany her teenage daughters. “The girls can wear what they want and roam around freely,” said Nadia Shamsaan, 33. “But I also come here to relax,” she added, sprawled on an outdoor sofa in a patterned shirt and jeans.
Outside the park, reality hits. The women step out in their all-covering abayas to find a tangle of traffic that snarls around its perimeter. The men have come to pick them up.Write to Margherita Stancati at margherita.stancati@wsj.com

Thursday, June 9, 2016

One woman's furious response to Uber's new deal with the Saudi government.

Story reported on UpWorthy on June 9, 2016. A link to the story is here and the text is pasted in below. The author is Jon Comulada.

Every day, Salwa wakes up at 5 a.m. to catch the bus to her college, but most days, her first class isn't until noon.

She can't take a later bus because there is no later bus.
She can't drive herself to school either. She's not allowed.
So when she arrives on campus hours before her class? She waits.

Salwa lives in Saudi Arabia, where women have been banned from driving cars for decades.

Saudi women are forced to rely on rides from friends, family, and "male guardians." Photo by Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images.
There's no actual law on the books banning women from driving; it's against the social values set by religious clerics who advise the king and can ban pretty much whatever they want. They've argued that allowing women to drive would have serious negative impacts on society — everything from a "chaotic" mixing of genders in public to claiming that somehow the act of driving pushes up on the pelvis in a way that would cause birth defects. Which is, you know ... insane.
So Salwa is left taking the bus.

Leaving school to get to her internship at a nearby hospital is no picnic either.

"Female students are not allowed to exit the university without permission from a male guardian," Salwa told Upworthy through a translator. "This male guardian can be a father, brother, uncle, or even a cousin. So every time I want to leave the university, I must have two copies of a paper containing my male guardian's signature. I have to give the female security a copy so she'll let me leave, then I must give another copy to a security man who is always standing at the bus door. He doesn't let any girl ride the bus without this paper."

Even though she has to plan her entire day navigating around these rules, Salwa is getting her education.

She's a senior majoring in clinical laboratory science at King Saud University in Riyadh: a city that once banned women from entering a certain Starbucks after a wall fell down that had previously separated families from single people.
(Other things banned in Saudi Arabia include Pokemon and cat selfies. Not just cats or selfies, but cat selfies: pictures of one's self with a cat or cats ... or anything else.)
Understandably, it's the strict prohibitions put upon women that anger Salwa the most.
Photo by Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images.
"I'm really annoyed because I'm not a minor [who should] be treated like this," she told Upworthy. "I'm an adult girl who's reached the legal age. But they treat us like kids."

Recently, Uber announced a deal with the government in Saudi Arabia. Could this be the answer for women like Salwa who need to get around?

The ride-hailing service just announced a $3.5 billion investment the Saudi government, which marks the biggest single source overseas investment in the company's history and possibly a new chapter for Silicon Valley tech. Given that Uber has experienced some recent regulatory issues in parts of Europe, including the conviction of two of its French executives, it makes sense they are more aggressively pursuing markets elsewhere, like the Middle East and Asia.
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

But it's not as simple as it sounds. Uber has partnered with a government that banned half its population from driving.

So when Saudi women utilize Uber, they're now giving the government a financial incentive not to lift the driving ban. Many of them, including Salwa, find that insulting and exploitative.
"Saudi Arabia is now taking benefits from Uber economically," she told Upworthy. "Thus, the government won't give us our rights since they are earning huge amounts of money due to this partnership. I'm here as a Saudi women calling for the withdrawal of Uber since it is the cause of a lot of suffering for us and makes our rights delayed."
Photo by Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images.

She's not alone. Saudi women recently took to Twitter in big numbers to announce a boycott.

Before long, the hashtag "Saudi women announce Uber boycott," (which, yes, is shorter in Arabic) had 8,500 mentions in a week.
Uber spokeswoman Jill Hazelbaker responded to criticism of the deal saying, "Of course we think women should be allowed to drive. In the absence of that, we have been able to provide extraordinary mobility that didn’t exist before — and we’re incredibly proud of that.”

But for Saudi women like Salwa, the driving ban isn't just a matter of getting around. It's about fairness.

"The clerics here are against women working, driving, or being independent," Salwa told Upworthy. "They claim that men's prestige will be lost if women did all that... Girls here are considered property."
Women attending a spring festival in Riyadh. Photo by Hassan Ammar/AFP/Getty Images.
Since speaking out against Uber and her government, Salwa says she has been harassed and threatened on social media. She's not afraid, but she is angry. "If I could leave Saudi Arabia without getting permission from my male guardian, I would leave," she says.

Tomorrow, when Salwa wakes up at 5 a.m. to begin her commute, she still won't have the right to drive.

But she'll continue pursuing her education. She'll continue building her career, and she'll continue speaking her mind, fighting to be a person in a world that tells her she's property.
Maybe one day when the anger and courage of women like Salwa forces Saudi Arabia to a tipping point, she'll be free to walk, drive, take the bus, or take a cat selfie — whenever she wants.
For now though, she has to get to school.

Saudi scholar says 'yes' to women driving cars

Emirates 24/7 News reports that a Saudi scholar would permit his daughters to drive. A link to the story is here, and the text is pasted in below:

June 9, 2016 - A well known Saudi Islamic scholar has said he is not opposed to any government decision to allow women to drive cars in the conservative Gulf Kingdom and that he would let his daughters drive.
“I will not oppose any decision allowing women in Saudi Arabia to drive cars,” Sheikh Adel Kalbani said, quoted by Sada newspaper.
“If such a decision is issued by the Saudi government, I don’t mind that my own daughters drive cars,” said the Sheikh, a preacher at the Muhaisn Mosque, one of the largest mosques in the Saudi capital Riyadh.
Women in Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter, are now permitted to drive cars because of social and religious barriers.
Female activists and other Saudi women have defied the ban and driven cars in street protests over the past years to press for ending the ban.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Saudi Arabia bought a huge stake in Uber. What does that mean for female drivers?

Adam Taylor writes in the Washington Post on June 2, 2016. A link to the story is here, and the text is pasted below.

This week the Silicon Valley-based ride-sharing app Uber announced it was getting a huge new injection of funding. But the money wasn't coming from any of the standard investors from the U.S. tech world.
Instead, it was coming from Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi state's Public Investment Fund (PIF) was putting $3.5 billion into the company, the largest investment in Uber to date. The move has raised eyebrows, however, due to one of the kingdom's most notorious domestic policies: Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where women cannot legally drive.
While the act of driving for women is not specifically banned, various religious edicts in the country have meant women are restricted from applying for a driving license, effectively making the act of driving illegal for Saudi women. While some women in rural areas do drive without licenses anyway and some women with foreign driving licenses occasionally get behind the wheel (a legal gray area used largely in protest), for the most part women in Saudi Arabia simply don't drive. Polls suggest that support for the policy within the country is mixed.
Uber, of course, does not deliberately restrict female drivers. At the end of 2015, the company said that only 19 percent of the drivers using the app were women but that it was actively trying to increase that percentage. The Saudi government will now be given a direct say in Uber's decision making process — PIF was given a seat on the board as part of the deal — but a representative of Uber said that the investment would definitely not limit women drivers on the app in the United States or other countries where women are allowed to drive.
What's more complicated, however, is the role that Uber already plays in Saudi Arabia's gender politics. While the country's drivers are almost certainly entirely male, Uber's own figures show their Saudi passengers are more than 80 percent female. For many women in the country, the app and its competitors offer a chance at greater autonomy. Public transportation in Saudi Arabia is largely poor, and it can be difficult to find a regular taxi at times. Many families can't afford to hire a driver to take women places on their own.
The end result is that if you are a Saudi woman and you want to commute to work or run errands on your own, a ride-sharing app can become an important tool. “There are some [women] that take five to 10 trips with us every day,” Mudassir Sheikha, the founder of local Uber rival Careem told the Los Angeles Times last year. “We don’t see that kind of traffic anywhere.”
Uber has acknowledged the role its app plays in the country, usually portraying it as a strength. In December the company offered free Uber rides to Saudi women during the first election in which they were legally allowed to vote.
“Of course we think women should be allowed to drive,” Jill Hazelbaker, an Uber spokeswoman, told the New York Times this week. “In the absence of that, we have been able to provide extraordinary mobility that didn’t exist before — and we’re incredibly proud of that.” It's expected now that the Saudi investment in Uber should end lingering questions about the legality of the service in the country.
Yet the company could also be accused of providing a reprieve for the Saudi government from dealing with the issues surrounding female drivers in the country. Members of the Saudi royal family have repeatedly suggested that they believe women should be able to drive — Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a powerful voice in the country, recently suggested that "women don’t get their complete rights granted them by Islam.”
Yet no real moves toward lifting the restrictions on female drivers have been seen recently. Crown Prince Mohammed said in April that the country was still "not convinced about women driving."
The problem is likely opposition from the Saudi kingdom's powerful religious community, which largely opposes female drivers. While one cleric infamously suggested that driving could damage women's ovaries, many focus on more practical reasons: What happens if a female driver is pulled over by a male cop? Saudi Arabia's religious customs would find this type of interaction between male and female strangers inappropriate (the interaction between Saudi women and male Uber drivers raises fewer eyebrows because it is transactional in nature). Saudi Arabia has announced its intentions to hire more female police officers, but progress remains slow.
Meanwhile, public transport projects are also making slim progress. Riyadh's planned metro station is not slated to open until 2018. And while Uber is an option for some women, for many it's still too expensive for any kind of regular use. Some observers wonder if the eventual end of Saudi Arabia's restrictions on female drivers will come from self-driving cars rather than anything else.
The Saudi government gets more complicated still when you consider the broader economic factors at play. Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed has become the figurehead of a widely publicized push (dubbed Saudi Vision 2030) to modernize the Saudi economy and end its "addiction" to oil. The hope is to diversify the country's business world, using the country's vast wealth it has accumulated over the years to invest in profitable ventures and focusing on underdeveloped industries like tourism and arms.
There's a social component at work here, too, most notably in the significant cuts being made to the subsidies given to Saudi citizens. Female citizens are being encouraged to enter the workforce, with Mohammed stating the aim was to increase their participation from 22 percent to 30 percent by 2030. Such moves may soon put the ruling Saudi royals at odds with the country's religious elite, potentially shattering a partnership that has provided relative stability to the country for decades.
The investment in Uber seems to be a sign that the Saudi state is willing to bet big on the country's economic future. How those economic bets will translate socially is hard to predict.