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DIVERSITY, EQUITY, AND INCLUSION
Freedom Behind the Wheel in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
By Sylvia Hendricks 14-Oct-18
24 June 2018 was a historic day in Saudi Arabia, as women were given the freedom to take the wheels of their vehicles and drive for the first time in their own country. The excitement was overwhelming, to say the least! Additionally, expatriate women, who had only been allowed to drive within the walls of protected compounds, also gained the opportunity to feel the freedom of this significant change. I was outside of the Kingdom on summer break when Saudi women were granted the right to drive, but even from afar I felt pride for my friends who remained in-country and were experiencing this monumental change firsthand. Social media was plastered with emotional images capturing moments of joy and amazement. I knew that when I returned to Saudi I would also get my driver’s license as a souvenir to mark this monumental change, though I had yet to fully comprehend what it all truly meant. When I arrived back in Saudi on 22 July and entered our central office, some of my women colleagues had just completed their driving tests and received their licenses. Their enthusiasm and excitement were uplifting and contagious. Before I knew it, I was swept up by the momentum and found myself in the thick of the process, which in my case involved an eye exam and getting my U.S. license translated, among other things. Within a couple of days, I found myself in an SUV with five other ladies on our way to complete our driving tests. It was most nerve-wracking watching one another parallel park, but truly exciting to see our fresh licenses drop from the printer and hold the warm cards in our hands. The sensation was a combination of relief and pride. We had done it! My goal was accomplished: I had my license and I was ready to take the wheel, if I should ever need to. To be honest, at the outset I didn’t think I’d ever actually drive in Saudi Arabia. Anyone who has ever lived here can confirm that the driving culture can be a little more “creative” than one may be used to, and the flow of traffic can, at times, be dangerously fast. However, once I announced on social media my success in securing a license, women who had previously lived here along with many others expressed how proud they were of me. They were amazed that this movement was taking place in the country and were telling others that I was part of making history. “Look at my friend and what she is doing in Saudi Arabia!” seemed to be the theme of their comments. I was now beginning to understand that this was much bigger than me, and the little card I was holding in my hand represented so much more than a souvenir. I now felt compelled to actually use it; I had to experience the drive, the freedom of leaving our housing compound. I drove from my home early one weekend morning accompanied by my husband, Bob. As we neared the gate of our compound I had a sense of hesitation, wondering if I was actually going to be allowed to drive through. The gate was already open and the guard standing to the side simply waved me through. I couldn’t believe how easy it was! I immediately choked up and a tear ran down my cheek. I was shocked by my own emotional reaction. What was wrong with me? I’d been driving for more than 35 years—what was so different now? I reasoned that it was the feeling of being told that I could finally drive wherever I liked, without fearing that I’d be stopped. Only at that moment did I begin to understand the magnitude of this change for the women of Saudi Arabia, and this realization was unexpectedly overwhelming. Yes, I had been driving for years, but this was the first time Saudi women could do the same. I felt honored to be part of something so life-changing and to share this experience with other women in this country and through social media as well. I was now a small part of something unbelievably big. My husband and I began working overseas in 1988 with the aim of teaching children from around the world and traveling to a variety of countries to experience other cultures. It has been, and continues to be, a very rewarding and rich life. This latest experience serves to remind us that one never knows what will happen in the place we decide to call “home” for a period of our lifetime. For me, the experience of finally driving freely in a country where women have been prevented from doing so for so long will stay with me for the rest of my life. Sylvia Hendricks teaches Language Arts at Saudi Aramco Expatriate School in Dhahran.
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