Enaam Alaswad has only risked getting behind the wheel of a car in Saudi Arabia once, sparked by the frustration of watching her driver try and fail, repeatedly, to squeeze into a tight parking space on the baking, dusty streets of her seaside hometown, Jeddah.
“I couldn’t bear it, I asked him to get out, and parked it myself. Then I got out and walked away,” says the 43-year-old with a laugh. With that neat piece of parallel parking, she would once have risked arrest. But Saudi Arabia is changing.
She almost always travels by car, like most people in Jeddah, a sprawling city of multi-lane avenues with only the scantest of public transport, where baking summer temperatures make walking or cycling more than a couple of blocks an exhausting, sweaty ordeal.
For all Alaswad’s life, Saudi law has forbidden women from driving, even in emergencies. Richer women managed by hiring drivers. Millions of others have had to rely on taxis or husbands, brothers and sons, sometimes even perching pre-teen boys in the driver’s seat.
Ride-hailing apps have made finding a driver a little easier in recent years, but for women just getting around, on a daily commute or the school run, to see friends or to go to the gym, carried an extra cost – in money, frustration, wasted time and sometimes fear. So like millions of other Saudi women, Alaswad was stunned and thrilled when the Saudi authorities unexpectedly announced that the ban would be lifted from late June. “I was fed up. Now I feel like we live in a nice country, not like before,” she says. “I wish this had happened when I was 20 or 30.”
After years of managing a car rental company in Syria, her mother’s home country, Alaswad reckons she can drive cars better than many men in Saudi Arabia, and keen to play a small part in transforming the roads and getting women out of their homes by becoming one of Saudi Arabia’s first female taxi-drivers with the ride-hailing app Careem. “We have to build this country together, men and women.”