It’s rare that we have enough foresight to determine which moments in time will prove to be historical turning points for societal change. But when the kingdom of Saudi Arabia allowed women to begin driving in June of 2018, just about everyone could tell that it would be a moment that redefined mobility in the Middle Eastern country. And HBO was there to capture the first moments of it in the new documentary Saudi Women’s Driving School, which will debut on October 25.
Saudi Women’s Driving School follows several female drivers in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of the Royal Decree allowing women to drive. There is Sarah Salah, a saleswoman at a Ford dealership who is learning how to drive the cars she sells. There’s Shahad al-Hamaizi, one of the first female Uber drivers. There’s Amjar al-Amri, who decided to become a race car driver while participating in her school’s Formula Student program. There are countless driving instructors, scholars, activists, nurses and more, all eager to share their experiences.
As noted at the beginning, Saudi Arabia rarely ever lets foreign film crews record in the kingdom, so HBO got unprecedented access here to capture footage of the women getting their sea legs, so to speak. It goes behind the curtain of our preconceptions and allows viewers to see what the real situation is.
The main takeaway here is the sheer freedom of the women who are learning to drive. The Saudi Driving School is one of the biggest driving schools in the world with 700 instructors (many of whom learned to drive in other countries) and over 250 different cars — all to cope with the influx of women who want nothing more than to be free to go where they like.
Salah, the saleswoman, is a single woman living at home with her ageing mother and two sisters. With no man in the house, they have been forced to rely on taxis to get around to things like doctor’s appointments. Salah states that her dream car is a Ford Taurus — perfect for driving herself to work and giving her mother a lift to the market. A driving instructor named Amal notes that her daughter is diabetic and prone to fainting. It was only after learning to drive that she was able to proactively seek help. It’s often the little things — the practical things — that mean the most to these women.
Women being a prominent feature of public life in Saudi Arabian society is a relatively new concept. We all know about the tradition of veiling, but it was also common for restaurants to segregate men and women into different areas. Only recently have places like shopping malls and football matches become more open for people of all genders.
Many people still hold onto their traditions when faced with the concept of female drivers. A voiceover of a man named Muhammed states that he will not allow his wife to drive because she will be visible in public. Shahad, the Uber driver, says that men will cancel their trip upon realising a woman is behind the wheel. Amal’s husband notes that a wife’s duty is to remain in the home, where she will be protected. Some men feel that women won’t just stop at achieving equality — they will instead actively root men out of their professions and places in society.
Many who agree with women driving still believe in the concept of Guardianship, which treats all women as minors who must be taken care of by the men in their lives, no matter their age. The women fortunate enough to drive are those with more lenient and understanding parents.
There’s a very controversial history when it comes to female drivers in that country. Women were banned from driving in 1990, with nearly three decades passing before they were allowed to get behind the wheel again. Activists who protested the ban by filming videos of themselves driving and posting them online were arrested. Some were released while others were branded as traitors. Those who were released were actually re-arrested just weeks before the driving ban was overturned in 2018.
There were a few moments that made me question their veracity. There are a handful of conversations — especially in the latter half of the film — that were supposed to be natural, but felt a little staged. But aside from that, I didn’t have any other criticisms. I was fascinated.
For the most part, it looks as if women have wholeheartedly adopted the freedom of driving, and the documentary has done an incredible job of capturing the fear, frustration, joy, and empowerment that comes from the ability to actually get out of the house and travel unrestricted. There was the perfect blend of forward action tempered by social, economic, political, and historical precedent so that you really get the sense why this ability to drive is so groundbreaking.
Saudi Women’s Driving School will air on HBO in the U.S. on October 25. It will be available on-demand the following day, although there is no news of where our Australian audience may access it yet.