As the Kingdom Allows Women to Drive

Let’s take our hats off to our drivers in Saudi Arabia

“Dreamlike Reality”

On September 26, 2017 King Salman ordered a royal decree that women may get driver’s license starting June 2018. Since the announcement, there has been a wide range of reactions from across the globe. There are those who celebrate the news as they have been fighting hard for this day. There are those who welcome the news with a shock and disdain at how late it has come. Some are asking more practical questions, such as how women’s driving can actually pan out when Saudi guardianship law is still in tact. Some seem to be worried that this is merely a political move for the eyes of the international audience (similar to the controversy during women voting in elections in 2015) than an actual women’s empowerment step. Yes, these are all valid questions, concerns, and reactions to consider and we will surely continue the dialogue to ensure progress on women’s rights in Saudi Arabia.

Still, regardless of differences in perspectives, it is a historic moment in Saudi Arabia. This symbolizes a significant reform in the role and status of women in this Kingdom. It may be less about the actual driving, and more about having that choice, having that individual mobility. It’s going to take time and a lot of right steps to actualize this change in practice. I don’t imagine most women will actually want to get out on the road when June 2018 comes — for one, Riyadh traffic is terrible and shiny Hummers and Land Rovers speed around the streets like it’s their own private race tracks. The important thing is that choice is power and women of Saudi Arabia finally get to own this power. Half of Saudi’s population (45% to be precise) just became more powerful, which makes the entire nation more powerful. I applaud King Salman for taking this pivotal step.

However, in this celebratory moment, there is someone else important I would like us to applaud — they are millions and millions of private drivers that have served and are serving in Saudi Arabia. Today’s blog is not about Saudi women but a blog on behalf of Saudi women to thank all the drivers who have devoted their career to driving us — the women and children — around, wherever and whenever we needed. Some may say that it was their job, an exchange of labor and money. But those of us who grew up with these drivers know very well that their title meant little, these men lived with us away from their families, and at a moment’s notice, they became our bodyguards, translators, cooks, handymen, electricians, plumbers, cleaners, deliverymen, uncles who says yes to all our demands. They were the faces you see before you’re off to school and the faces you look for after busy school day is over. I remember all those late night shawarma and pizza orders or answering to my sudden urges to go shopping or to a friend’s house during my driver’s time off or fixing a sudden issue in our air conditioners or offering to cook us snacks when parents aren’t around.

Migun Arabia staff in 2004. Center front- my father. Back left — Manjour. Center right middle — Masoud.

Today I am remembering their names and the countries they came from, where their families remained while their ‘husbands,’ their ‘fathers,’ their ‘brothers,’ their ‘sons’ came to work for us in this oil-rich desert country. Suk Su Lee (Korean), Man Soo Park (Korean), Tariq (Indian), Aloom (Bengali), Shakeel (Pakistani), Hussein (Bengali), Ali (Indian), Farouq (Pakistani), Kamal (Indian), Yousef (Indian), Masoud (Bengali), Aneesh (Indian), Babu (Indian), Manjour (Bengali), Hakeem (Indian, now our Sales Manager).

From my childhood memory, I am especially grateful to ‘Hussein ah-juh-ssi’ (a way to call older men in Korean). He is from Bangladesh and joined our family as our driver in early 90s. Before meeting our family, he had worked for Hyundai and already spoke fluent English and amazing Korean. He was so smart and was a man with integrity that he not only drove my mom and the children around between schools and daily chores but was also trusted with cash handling of my father’s businesses. As most drivers do, he lived with us under the same roof for almost 18 years. He even brought his wife and daughter to Saudi Arabia to live with us and had 2 more children. We were one big happy family. My favorite memory of Hussein ah-juh-ssi is the smell of his french toast on his days off and waiting for him to ask from his upstairs kitchen — “you guys want some egg bread?” in Korean.

Hussein Ah Juh Ssi at his desk in our office, 2004

Not immediately but also not in too far distant future, this role of drivers as we know it in the modern Saudi society will surely dwindle and remain in the memories of all women and girls of Saudi Arabia. In this exciting time of positive momentum for the Saudis, on behalf of all women who have lived in Saudi Arabia, I would like us to take our hats off to millions of drivers and their families for their lifetime of service. Thank you, shukran jazeelan!

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Do you have itching questions about Saudi Arabia or your own Saudi stories to share? Leave them in the comment box or message me.

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