RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA: Donning a helmet inside a pearl silver sports sedan, Rana Almimoni skids and drifts around a Riyadh park, engine roaring, tyres screeching and clouds of dust billowing from the back.
For Saudi women, such adrenaline rushes were unimaginable just weeks ago.
Speed-crazed women drivers are bound to turn heads in the deeply conservative desert kingdom, which overturned the world’s only ban on female motorists in June as part of a much-hyped liberalisation drive led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Almimoni, 30 and a motor racing enthusiast, is defying the perception — or sexist misconception, depending on who you ask — that only dainty cars in bright colours are popular with women drivers.
“I adore speed. I love speed… My dream car is more than 500 horsepower,” said Almimoni, slamming the accelerator of her silvery sleek Kia Stinger inside Riyadh’s Dirab motor park.
“It’s a myth… that Saudi women only choose pink and cute cars.”
Almimoni said she was awaiting an expected government decision that would permit women to obtain a “racing licence”, which would allow her to hone her passion in motor-sport competitions.
That includes drifting — oversteering the car to slip and skid or even spin, and other high-speed daredevilry — which is illegal in public but tolerated in the controlled environment of Dirab park, whose private owners insist on safety.
Need For Speed
Author Pascal Menoret’s acclaimed book “Joyriding in Riyadh” described the high-octane Saudi obsession for drifting, long seen as a symbol of revolt among legions of restless youth, as all “about being a real man”.
Now newly mobile Saudi women are embracing what was previously deemed a male entitlement — speed.
“Most of our enquiries (from women) are about drifting — how to learn drifting, which cars can they train on, how long will it take them” to drift, said instructor Falah al-Jarba as he watched Almimoni zip around the park.
Auto showrooms tapping new women clients have rolled out a line-up of cherry red Mini Coopers, but sales professionals say many exhibit an appetite for muscle cars like the Camaro or the Mustang convertible.
Many new drivers seek inspiration from Aseel al-Hamad, the first female member of the kingdom’s national motor federation, who got behind the wheel of a Formula One car in France in June to mark the end of the driving ban.
Clad in skinny jeans and Harley-Davidson T-shirts, a handful of women are also training to ride motorbikes at a Riyadh driving school, a scene that is still a stunning anomaly in the conservative petro-state.
Transport authorities have rolled out racing simulators to help first-time women drivers get a feel of being behind the wheel.
As a male traffic official demonstrated the importance of seatbelts by buckling up inside a car tethered to a flat platform and upturning the vehicle, some women zipped around twisted tracks in toy cars.
Another sat down behind the wheel of a simulator and instantly floored the accelerator, sending the speedometer soaring.
“I don’t feel I’m in Saudi Arabia anymore,” said Nagwa Mousa, a 57-year-old university professor in Riyadh.
“But I don’t expect to see many women in Saudi Arabia overtaking and speeding in the streets anytime soon.”
The driving reform is said to be transformative for women, freeing them from dependence on private chauffeurs or male relatives, but many are keeping off the streets.
“Congratulate me, finally saw a female driving! Although she is Bahraini but it counts as she is driving in Saudi land,” comedian Yaser Bakr said on Twitter after the ban was lifted.
No ‘Free Speech’
For now, most women drivers appear to be those who have swapped foreign licences for Saudi ones after undergoing a practical test.
Many complain that driving courses cost several times more than those available to men and that women instructors are in short supply.
While no overt incidents of street harassment have been reported publicly, many women are also wary of pervasive sexism and aggression from male drivers despite warnings from authorities.
Also testing nerves is the government’s sweeping crackdown on women activists who long opposed the driving ban and a long-vilified system of male “guardians” — fathers, husbands or other male relatives, whose permission is required to travel or get married.
“The Saudi government is expanding entertainment options for Saudi women but eliminating space for political expression,” said Kristin Diwan, of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
“Lady drifters can feel the speed but not free speech.”
At least 12 leading human rights activists, including eight women, have been arrested in Saudi Arabia since May, according to Amnesty International.
The crackdown triggered a diplomatic brawl with Canada after Ottawa demanded the “immediate release” of those detained.
“It’s a dubious advancement in gender parity: women are now coming under arrest for their rights activism just like the men,” said Diwan.