Women have been arrested. Detained. Harassed. Because they drove a car. In Saudi Arabia.
A week ago, the rules changed. Women can drive now, it is no longer punishable, said the Director General of the Saudi Traffic Directorate, General Mohammed al-Bassami. Women who have reached the age of 18 can get a driver's license once they pass the test.
That law became effective on June 24. And three days later, Saramma Thomas, who has been living in Saudi for nine years, got her license. She would come to know only later, from media reports, that she is the first Indian woman to get it.
"Friends and relatives started calling, seeing reports. Congratulatory messages kept pouring in on Facebook and WhatsApp. Phone calls became too many!" says Saramma on a call from Saudi. She's just reached home on Sunday evening, after work. Saramma works as a staff nurse at the King Abdulaziz Naval Base Military Hospital.
"I have been working for 12 years in all now, three years back home in Kerala before my wedding, and nine years in Saudi after it," she says. She belongs to Angamoozhy and her husband to Kumbazha, both in Pathanamthitta district. They stay at Kumbanad, when they visit Kerala.
Saramma used to drive in Kerala, and loved it too. She was just waiting for the day women would be allowed to drive in Saudi.
As soon as he heard about the new law, Mathew, her husband, applied for the license and they got the appointment for the test on June 27. Saramma passed the test and got her license the same day.
"It is the same rules as in our land. Only the steering wheel is on the left side. But otherwise it is much easier here. The roads are fine. And it is auto gear. Women would find it a lot easier to drive," Saramma says.
They rode the Dammam Highway as soon as Saramma got the license – the little family of three – Saramma, Mathew and their four-year-old Aaidan.
"I hope this becomes an inspiration for more women to drive here in Saudi. Many women called to tell me they felt motivated after watching me drive," Saramma says.