|By Rachelle Kliger/Riyadh
A report has found that some 35% of Saudi women’s monthly income is spent on drivers and taxis as they are forbidden from driving and are largely excluded from the public transport system.
The survey, conducted by the Saudi Centre for Studies and Media (SCSM), is recommending the establishment of women-only buses in the kingdom and is currently being studied by Saudi Arabia’s legislative branch, the Majlis A-Shoura (Consultative Council).
The line of women-only buses, called Hafilati (“My Bus”), will employ male drivers.
“This is the first programme of its kind in Saudi Arabia to transport female passengers for a price that is fair and equal to that of men,” Jamal Banoun, director of the SCSM told The Media Line. “The primary aim of this is to provide protection for women against moral problems and sexual harassment that they sometimes face from taxi drivers.”
The report stressed the economic benefits of the system.
“Field research has shown that the working Saudi woman spends 35% of her income on transportation, or on paying the salary of a driver who works for her,” read the report.
“We’re talking about women who earn no more than 3,000 Saudi riyals ($800)… It’s a huge amount to spend, when that woman is also sustaining a family, providing for children, paying monthly bills and undertaking family responsibilities.”
In recent years the kingdom has been undergoing gradual reforms and women are becoming a more significant part of the work force.
“The need for transportation for women in Saudi Arabia hasn’t been given the same attention that it’s been given for men,” the report read. “Men have options such as driving a car and other modes of transport that facilitate their movement whenever they want. But the Saudi woman is limited in her options in using transportation.”
The report said: “She is restricted to using either taxis or sitting in a limited number of seats in public transport. As employment opportunities for women are becoming more diverse and cities are expanding, women on different levels need to use transportation.”
Residents, however, stress the need to improve the existing bus system.
“We do have public transportation but it is only used by those in the lowest economic bracket,” Eman al-Najfan, a Saudi blogger and women’s rights advocate told The Media Line. “The bus system is extremely under-developed and even if women could use them, they wouldn’t want to.”
Al Nafjan said she was all in favour of having women-only buses.
“I think it’s a fantastic idea and I truly hope that it will be implemented,” she said. “Here, many women pay from 20% to 70% of their salaries to the driver, and I’m not exaggerating. A driver’s salary goes from $270 up to $540, while I know women working as teachers at private schools that are paid $500. Add to that the fact that you have to provide room and board and a car for the driver and you can see how tough it can get for women with no means. Also, taxis here are notoriously unsafe and expensive.”
These concerns are echoed in the report, which details the problems that have arisen between male drivers and female passengers, including harassment, violence and abuse, especially when the passenger is alone.
“The papers are full of these kinds of stories, detailing social, health and security dangers,” the report said.
Saudi Arabia is not the first Middle Eastern country to consider creating a segregated transportation system and the idea is not always welcomed by rights activists.
In Cairo’s subway system, the fourth and fifth carriages are reserved exclusively for women. Also, women-only taxis, which are both driven by women and serve women, are either operating, or being discussed, in Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Dubai and Jordan.
Some women’s activists say the idea isolates women instead of addressing the core problem, which is eradicating sexual harassment.
Women-for-women taxis are currently not an option in Saudi Arabia where women cannot take the wheel.
The current city transportation system, the report said, allocates a limited number of seats to women and covers no more than 30% of the city area. In fact, the only bus company that has good coverage in the capital Riyadh and the commercial capital Jeddah does not accommodate women at all, again limiting women to expensive alternatives.
The planned women-only buses will be accessible to some 75% of women in Saudi Arabia, including both residents and foreign workers.
Planners calculate that the system will save 70% of the Saudi women’s expenditures on transportation, with a return journey costing a nominal fee of four riyals, or one dollar.
If approved, the plan would first be executed as a pilot programme in Riyadh and Jeddah for six months. If successful, within five years it will operate 600 buses in all Saudi cities, carrying some 2.5mn Saudi women a year and providing jobs for 3,000 drivers.
“Studies indicate that the population will continue to grow, construction will expand and these two things combined will create an increase in traffic in Saudi cities, especially in Riyadh, Jeddah and Makkah in the upcoming years,” the report says. “This warrants a study into ways to develop and manage a transportation system on an ongoing basis and look for operative alternatives for women transportation.”
“If they were to approve it, it will probably take at least a couple of years for us to have them up and running,” Nafjan said. “I think the state of the economy will help push the proposal forward, because even our most conservative extremists are feeling it.” — The Media Line