Monday, February 27, 2017

Incremental Change

Saudi women walking by two men on a motorcycle;
Hello Everyone:

New week, new topics to talk about.  Today we are going to return to the subject of women and  transportation.  The focus is Saudi Arabia.  Saudi Arabia is the sole country in the world that does not issue driver's licenses to women.  The irony here is Saudi women are allowed to own cars and do drive in the rural areas.  However, in cities such as Jeddah and Riyadh, women are required to have a male relative or foreign-born worker drive them where they need, in their own cars.  Mimi Kirk's CityLab article, "What Riyadh's New Metro Will for Women," reports on the impact the Kingdom's new metro will have on female mobility.  Will the prospect of increased mobility mean greater educational and employment opportunities?  Shall we find out?

For the past few years, Uber and similar ride sharing services began operating in the Kingdom.  Ms. Kirk reports, "Uber reports that 80 percents of its users in the country are women.  But to some, the arrangement feels exploitive, since are a captive market."  Hatton al-Fassi, an academic at Qatar University told Ms. Kirk,

[Uber] shows the ugly practice of using women's suffering to make money.

How did the Saudi women respond?

A year ago, the Kingdom invest "$3.5 billion in Uber...Saudi women were incensed," to say the least.  The women were furious over feeling cows for transport companies protested on social media.  They posted pictures on social media, deleting ride sharing apps from their phones, and tweeting boycott announcement.

Women's metro cabin in Dubai
In the near future, an alternative, less anger-inducing means transportation will be available to  urban Saudi women.  Mimi Kirk writes, "The High Commission for Development of Riyadh is implementing a six-line metro system and accompanying bus network."  The project is half finished and is expected to be operational by 2019.  Business Insider reported on May 20, 2016,

"...the biggest urban mass-transit system that's ever been created from scratch." (http//; date accessed Feb. 27, 2017).  Underground and bus lines are also planned for such cities as: Jeddah, Mecca, and Medina.

Saudi women shopping
Planner of Riyadh's metro are anticipating over a million riders, out of the city's population of 7 million residents.  Nearly half of Riyadhis are women (3 million to be more precise), Ms. Kirk writes, "...a significant number are liable to employ the service.  The anticipated one million riders is expected to increase to 3.5 million after a decade.  A female university student told Reuters,

It will be a major solution for women.

Naturally.  This will mean that women will longer have to be held hostage to a ride sharing app, rely on a male relative or foreign-born worker to drive them around.  This can open up the potential of greater opportunities for women in the public sphere.

Riyadh street view
Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
The Saudi Arabian underground project comes with additional benefits.  First, it can potentially lessen the nation's dependence on oil and oil revenue by encouraging less driving and increasing foreign investment.  Of course, the undergrounds will be outfitted with a variety of amenities.  For example, late-architect Zaha Hadid's firm has been commissioned to design an ultra-modern station in Riyadh's financial district.  The station will be equipped with driverless trains, Wi-Fi, air conditioning (a necessity), and solar panels that will provide 20 percent of the system's power.

However, it is women that will reap the primary benefit.  Ms. Kirk writes, "The trains will have cars for exclusive use by single women and families, helping to maintain the segregation of the sexes and providing a reliable, socially acceptable way to travel.  (A promotion video created by the High Commission for the Development of Riyadh...shows women matter-of-factly taking envisioned trains and buses.)"  You can see this video at  Hiring drivers or summing an Uber driver can be cost prohibitive, the a mass transportation system provides a more feasible option for women of lesser means.

Saudi women
Mimi Kirk ponders, "The question remains whether alternatives to driving, such as Uber or the metro, hinder the campaign to allow women behind the wheel."  Saudi women's rights activists have been organizing groups of women driving their cars in defiance of local authorities and producing music videos that comment on the ridiculousness of forbidding women drivers.  Hatoon al-Fassi is optimistic about the possibility of change.  For the past 25 years, there only have been whispers of women being granted driver's licenses. Ms. al-Fassi told Ms. Kirk,

Until a new policy is put in place, we will put on the pressure as much as possible.

In the interim, Ms. al-Fassi believes that mass transportation will be a welcome service.  She continued,

The new metro and bus systems will show how much and how long women have lived in unjust conditions...They will make women's lives more humane, dignified, and affordable.

In the West, we take our driver's licenses for granted.  Getting a license is a right of passage, something to be celebrated.  We tend to forget that there are parts of the world where women are not permitted to drive.  They are forced to dependent on a male relative or foreign-born worker to chauffeur them around town.  The introduction of a mass transportation system in Saudi Arabia opens the potential of making women, regardless of socio-economic status, more upwardly mobile.  We have to remember that change in a very conservative country, like Saudi Arabia, happens incrementally.  Mass transportation is part of the incremental change.  Once it opens, it will being fascinating to watch what happens.

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