Women drivers may face tide of sexism
Enaam Gazi Al Aswad, 43, one of the first female drivers hired by the ride sharing company Careem, applies lipstick inside her car at a company's office in Jeddah. - Reuters
Riyadh, Saudi Arabia - The driving reform has been widely hailed by young Saudis.
Long relegated to the back seat, Saudi women celebrated taking the wheel for the first time this week in a much-awaited rite of passage, but one crucial hurdle remains - the attitude of men.
Social media is awash with videos of women behind the wheel and men in the passenger seat, a role reversal that was unimaginable in the country until a royal decree last September ended a decades-long women driving ban.
A woman driver is such a novelty across the kingdom that when the decree took effect on Sunday, it prompted jubilation, disbelief - and reactions akin perhaps to those evoked by the first woman doctor in the 19th century.
"Look, a woman driver!" appeared to be a common refrain among male onlookers in Riyadh as women embraced a freedom long denied to them.
Now many are quietly bracing for a battle of the sexes on Saudi streets.
The driving reform has been widely hailed by young Saudis and no overt incidents of harassment were publicly reported in the first two days since the ban was lifted, but many are wary of pervasive sexism and aggression from male drivers despite warnings from authorities.
"I advise men to stay home to avoid being killed by women drivers!" said one Saudi Twitter user, echoing a torrent of similar comments predicting a surge of accidents because of female motorists.
Often accompanying such comments are images of fiery car crashes and traffic pileups.
And then there are the condescending mansplainers.
Some social media users have advised women to "avoid putting on makeup" while driving.
Others have predicted pink coloured cars and parking lots for women.
Fuelling the sexist ridicule, as women drivers hit the roads for the first time on Sunday, Saudi media splashed images of the inauguration of a gleaming new holding cell for women traffic violators.
Many women have responded with defiance. "Social media is flooded with messages ridiculing women and underestimating their ability to drive," columnist Wafa Al Rasheed wrote this month in Okaz, a Saudi daily. "We will drive and we will drive better than you, men." For now, the women taking to the roads appear mainly to be those who have swapped foreign licences for Saudi ones.
Some 120,000 women have applied for licences, according to an interior ministry spokesman, who declined to specify how many had been issued.
"Several men have shown concern that women relatives who drive will be harassed, followed, chased and videoed by male drivers," Abdul Al Lily, author of the book The Bro Code of Saudi Culture, told. A Saudi woman interviewed by AFP said she had deferred plans to drive, voicing a fear of "road Romeos" who might deliberately crash into her car just to find an excuse to talk. The government has also addressed concerns of abuse by outlawing sexual harassment, and authorities have sternly warned against stalking women drivers.