Women and Bumper Cars in Saudi Arabia
Driving is such an automatic act for me. If anything, most days it feels like a chore, and I prefer hanging out in the passenger seat playing podcast DJ than being behind the wheel. One of the reasons I love living in New York is that driving is completely unnecessary in my daily life. But when I read the other day that Saudi Arabian women go to “Ladies Only” nights at amusement parks to drive the bumper cars, I was reminded that driving can be more than a means of moving from place to place. It can be a joyful act of liberation.
Forbidden from driving by the restrictive Saudi monarchy, women there must rely on spouses or male relatives to get around. A lucky few who are wealthy might have their own drivers to rely on, and Uber has received big investments from the Saudi investment fund, so there’s a potential for mobility to increase for Saudi women. But drivers and ride-hailing apps address only the functional question of mobility, not the emotional desire to take the wheel and venture out on the open road.
So, women flock to the bumper cars. Not to bump (which is frowned upon), but to practice driving as best they can in loops around the course. The Wall Street Journal quotes 20 year-old Sama bin Mahfooz, who goes to the theme park in Jeddah every chance she gets to practice driving before she heads abroad for university. “Whenever my best friend would hit me, I would tell her: ‘No, let me drive, let me drive!’ ” There’s a video made by Arwa Al Neami as part of a project called “Never Never Land” that shows women negotiating the subtle points of bumper car etiquette in their abayas. Evidently Ladies’ Nights are even more popular, as the park is closed to men and women can shed their black robes and be free to wear their own clothing and show off their hairstyles.
Reading about the pleasure these women find in being behind the wheel has done a bit to rekindle my own enjoyment of driving. I think back to the day I passed my road test and drove straight from the DMV to pick up my best friend to go joy riding. It was June, school had just ended, and even driving down the boring residential roads in our suburban town felt like the most glorious adventure. Windows cranked down on my nine year-old Toyota Camry, our favorite mix in the tape deck, we sang at the top of our lungs, relishing our newfound freedom. Though we could’ve gone almost anywhere we imagined, it’s funny now to remember where we actually went that day. We made a beeline for a nearby amusement park. I can’t remember if we drove the bumper cars.