Six years ago, a shaky video posted to YouTube showed 37-year-old women’s rights activist Manal Al-Sharif, wearing an abaya, navigating the streets of Kohber in Saudi Arabia. Speaking into the camera, she says in Arabic: “You’ll find a woman who has a phD, [or] a professor in a university… and she doesn’t know how to drive. We want change in the country.” It was a powerful protest message, one that ultimately landed Al-Sharif in jail. Not for her words, but because she said them from behind the wheel of a car.
Still today, Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that does not permit women to drive, a cultural edict that has left women largely reliant on men to chauffeur them around. For decades, the restriction has kept Saudi Arabia’s women largely out of the workforce and, in some cases, confined to their homes. In this society, Uber has the potential to overcome many of the accessibility hurdles facing Saudi women. But it’s a flawed solution at best.
Women’s right to drive has long been contentious in Saudi society. The current ban remains as a result of a religious fatwa, or edict, issued in 1990 by Shaikh Abdel Aziz Bin Abdallah Bin Baz, which prohibited women from driving within the borders of the kingdom. It is also illegal for women to be granted a driver’s license.
Fatwas have the same power as law in Saudi Arabia, but activists like Al-Sharif say the fatwa is not “real Islam,” but rather a harmful ultra-conservative version of the religion.
On the ground, the fatwa means that women are required to have a male chaperone or driver in order to travel anywhere outside their homes. In some cases, drivers are simply male relatives. But often they are recruited as employees; they live in the household and juggle more than one individual’s daily schedule.
The driving restriction is part of a broader culture of gender segregation. In a 2016 study by the World Economic Forum—it quantified the magnitude of different countries’ gender disparities in health, education, politics, and the economy—Saudi Arabia ranked 141st out of 144. Gender segregation there is strictly enforced in day-to-day life, including segregated public spaces, restaurants, and entrances to buildings.
Lack of mobility also fosters unemployment. According to the country’s own General Authority for Statistics, 34% of Saudi women were unemployed last year. Some women can’t afford to hire and maintain a stay-at-home driver, and Saudi Arabia’s cities lack sidewalks and are generally not pedestrian-friendly. There’s also no public transportation, and taxi and limousine services are unregulated, often uninsured, and in many cases dangerous.
Enter Uber. In June 2016, the San Francisco-based ride-hailing company announced that it had received a $3.5 billion investment from Saudi Arabia’s Sovereign Wealth Fund. Since then, Uber has championed itself as providing a clean, safe, and affordable alternative to Saudi Arabia’s current transportation options.
Uber’s presence in the country also appears, on some level, to be offering Saudi women a newfound freedom of mobility. Since the investment, Uber has estimated that 80% of its users in the country are women. The company also says it is working on a government initiative to bring 1.3 million of Saudi Arabia’s more than 10 million women into the workforce. That kind of shift would bring women up to 30% of the labour force in the country, compared with 14% today.
“We are confident that the Uber technology has enabled mobility for women in Saudi Arabia to attend schools, university, visit family members, take the kids to school, and go to work,” an Uber spokesperson said in an email.
Hala Aldosari tends to agree. A visiting scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, Aldosari worked as a medical scientist in the Saudi health sector from 2000 to 2007. She says women often spend more than a third of their salary to recruit, lodge, and pay drivers. Uber removes the burden of that cost.
But women’s rights groups point out that freedom of mobility involves more than being driven. For Saudi women, the driving ban is a constant reminder that they are subordinate and dependent on men. (Indeed, the hypocrisy of women sharing cars with strange drivers, despite strict gender-segregation laws, is further highlighted by Uber.) A woman’s every decision to leave the house—even if just to get to school or work—hinges on the availability of a male taking them there. In an emergency, a woman’s ability to save herself is dependent on men. Any decisionmaking or power that a woman has over where she is going is dictated by a male figure, whether it’s a father, brother, uncle, or a foreign driver who is practically a stranger. Having to call an Uber driver out of necessity, rather than choice or convenience, is in many ways the same as being dependent on a chaperone.
“Reliance on others for basic errands and mobility ultimately reinforces the patriarchal system,” says Karen Young, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. “Women have less control over decisionmaking in their own lives.”
Even though Uber alleviates the problem, many women also feel the company is taking advantage of an unequal situation. They also see the government’s investment in Uber as a means of bypassing any need to actually change the driving law.
After all, ride-hailing in Saudi Arabia is still more expensive than driving oneself. Aldosari says her niece in Jeddah pays around 500 SAR ($133) per week to commute to work. That’s almost half her income.
Aldosari isn’t the only activist criticizing Uber. In 2014, Loujain Alhathloul got into her car in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and drove up to the shared border with Saudi Arabia. She was detained and jailed for two months for defying the driving ban. Although Alhathloul declined to comment for this story, she provided a link to a blog post written in Arabic from June 2016, titled “Corporation’s Effects on Human Rights.” In it, she demands that Uber withdraw from the $3.5 billion deal to place “economic pressure on traders to work with us to regain our lost right.”
Alhathloul has criticized Uber’s CEO, Travis Kalanick, and Saudi Princess Reema Bandar Al Saud, who was appointed to the company’s policy advisory board. She says that neither “had the courage to reveal the reality of this investment: that it is based on the exploitation of women’s situation in the kingdom.”
“By engaging and operating in Saudi Arabia, we can help have a positive social and economic impact in cities across the country,” Uber said in a statement. “Over 80% of our riders are women. In December 2015, during the historic elections where women were allowed to vote for the first time, we partnered with the Al Nahda Philanthropic Society for Women to provide free rides to voting booths.”
What remains unclear is how sweeping or lasting that positive social impact could ever be. “The government is thinking of women… as a utility to the economy, not as human beings and citizens who are entitled to commute and have access to mobility,” Aldosari says. “They need to engage women in the economy [because] they need to reduce the dependence of women on the state resources. That’s why they’re enabling women through Uber.”
Al-Sharif agrees: “They’ll say they’re not making money off us. But they’re making money off us. We’re 80% of their clients. Unless they fix the problem, we have in Saudi Arabia, of course we’ll be using [Uber].”