Manal Ahmad was being driven home from the shopping mall in Al Qassim, in central Saudi Arabia, when two men started to chase her in another car, yelling sexual catcalls from the window. The men cut them off and stopped short, forcing Ahmad’s driver to slam on the breaks.
Ahmad’s driver managed to speed away from the two men, but incidents like that are becoming increasingly common in Saudi Arabia, where women's chauffeurs are sometimes forced into double duty as bodyguards.
“Men think it’s okay to harass a woman in a car with a private driver,” Ahmad told Fusion, adding that her driver, who is not a Saudi citizen, is powerless to stop them.
It's more than some chauffeurs are prepared to deal with, which is why they're quitting their jobs or requesting salary raises to compensate for the added security risk. Women, under Saudi law, are not allowed to drive themselves, but now many students are finding it hard to pay their drivers the higher salaries they're demanding.
To avoid getting stranded, women are asking the government to either change the law or pick up the bill.
“I can’t go anywhere without the driver, I had to miss dentist and laser appointments because the driver didn’t show up. Your life basically stops if the driver is not there,” says Yosra Abdulrahman, a 19-year-old college freshmen.
She says private drivers are in high demand, and can charge salaries around $550 a month—almost double subsidy that the provides students to cover books and transportation costs.
“I am a teacher and I have no males to drive me to work everyday,” said Faouzieh, who spoke to Fusion in Arabic under the condition of anonymity. “My dad is dead and my brother is ill, so it's very important for me to have the government pay the driver’s fees. It should not come out of my own salary.”
To amplify their demand, women are turning to Twitter and using the hashtag #سعوديات_يطالبن_براتب_للسايقين, which is Arabic for Saudi women demand salary for drivers.
“In Saudi Arabia, Twitter is our only voice,” says Abdulrahman. “Social media is our only way to speak up and get our voices heard by the government.”
“A female employee pays a quarter of monthly salary to the driver to take her back and forth. And widows pay half of their pensions to the drivers!!!”
Another woman tweeted:
“This hashtag is trending worthy”
Many men mocked the women who tweeted the hashtag, but some came to their defense.
“Forbidding women from driving may deprive them of education, employment or makes them miss doctor appointments…this is an injustice to women”
“The hashtag is a logical request [for women] to get things done”
Of the eight Saudi women we spoke to for this article, six said they support the campaign calling on the government to pay drivers' salaries. Two women said the solution is not for the government to pay drivers, but to allow women to drive themselves.
“Harassment will not decline once women are permitted to drive, but at least it will be easier for women and our needs. We should not rely on others for transportation,” said Abdulrahman.
Alaa Basatneh is a human-rights activist and a writer at Fusion focusing on the Arab world. She is the protagonist of the 2013 documentary "#ChicagoGirl."