Every day, Salwa wakes up at 5 a.m. to catch the bus to her college, but most days, her first class isn’t until noon.
She can’t take a later bus because there is no later bus.
She can’t drive herself to school either. She’s not allowed.
So when she arrives on campus hours before her class? She waits.
Salwa lives in Saudi Arabia, where women have been banned from driving cars for decades.
There’s no actual law on the books banning women from driving; it’s against the social values set by religious clerics who advise the king and can ban pretty much whatever they want. They’ve argued that allowing women to drive would have serious negative impacts on society — everything from a “chaotic” mixing of genders in public to claiming that somehow the act of driving pushes up on the pelvis in a way that would cause birth defects. Which is, you know … insane.
So Salwa is left taking the bus.
Leaving school to get to her internship at a nearby hospital is no picnic either.
“Female students are not allowed to exit the university without permission from a male guardian,” Salwa told Upworthy through a translator. “This male guardian can be a father, brother, uncle, or even a cousin. So every time I want to leave the university, I must have two copies of a paper containing my male guardian’s signature. I have to give the female security a copy so she’ll let me leave, then I must give another copy to a security man who is always standing at the bus door. He doesn’t let any girl ride the bus without this paper.”
Even though she has to plan her entire day navigating around these rules, Salwa is getting her education.
She’s a senior majoring in clinical laboratory science at King Saud University in Riyadh: a city that once banned women from entering a certain Starbucks after a wall fell down that had previously separated families from single people.
Understandably, it’s the strict prohibitions put upon women that anger Salwa the most.
“I’m really annoyed because I’m not a minor [who should] be treated like this,” she told Upworthy. “I’m an adult girl who’s reached the legal age. But they treat us like kids.”
Recently, Uber announced a deal with the government in Saudi Arabia. Could this be the answer for women like Salwa who need to get around?
The ride-hailing service just announced a $3.5 billion investment the Saudi government, which marks the biggest single source overseas investment in the company’s history and possibly a new chapter for Silicon Valley tech. Given that Uber has experienced some recent regulatory issues in parts of Europe, including the conviction of two of its French executives, it makes sense they are more aggressively pursuing markets elsewhere, like the Middle East and Asia.
But it’s not as simple as it sounds. Uber has partnered with a government that banned half its population from driving.
So when Saudi women utilize Uber, they’re now giving the government a financial incentive not to lift the driving ban. Many of them, including Salwa, find that insulting and exploitative.
“Saudi Arabia is now taking benefits from Uber economically,” she told Upworthy. “Thus, the government won’t give us our rights since they are earning huge amounts of money due to this partnership. I’m here as a Saudi women calling for the withdrawal of Uber since it is the cause of a lot of suffering for us and makes our rights delayed.”
She’s not alone. Saudi women recently took to Twitter in big numbers to announce a boycott.
Before long, the hashtag “Saudi women announce Uber boycott,” (which, yes, is shorter in Arabic) had 8,500 mentions in a week.
Uber spokeswoman Jill Hazelbaker responded to criticism of the deal saying, “Of course we think women should be allowed to drive. In the absence of that, we have been able to provide extraordinary mobility that didn’t exist before — and we’re incredibly proud of that.”
But for Saudi women like Salwa, the driving ban isn’t just a matter of getting around. It’s about fairness.
“The clerics here are against women working, driving, or being independent,” Salwa told Upworthy. “They claim that men’s prestige will be lost if women did all that… Girls here are considered property.”
Since speaking out against Uber and her government, Salwa says she has been harassed and threatened on social media. She’s not afraid, but she is angry. “If I could leave Saudi Arabia without getting permission from my male guardian, I would leave,” she says.
Tomorrow, when Salwa wakes up at 5 a.m. to begin her commute, she still won’t have the right to drive.
But she’ll continue pursuing her education. She’ll continue building her career, and she’ll continue speaking her mind, fighting to be a person in a world that tells her she’s property.
Maybe one day when the anger and courage of women like Salwa forces Saudi Arabia to a tipping point, she’ll be free to walk, drive, take the bus, or take a cat selfie — whenever she wants.
For now though, she has to get to school.