In a historic moment in June, the orthodox kingdom of Saudi Arabia lifted its archaic ban on female drivers. Women are still restricted in multiple ways, without complete freedom in the right to marry, work as they deem fit, or travel freely. However, this is a win as women can finally be liberated from this decades-old rule, making it easier to generally travel around, join the workforce, and expand their own businesses.
This hard-won freedom comes after long years of fighting for the cause by activists who have even been arrested and/or imprisoned at times. While women are celebrating their right to drive, they also need to learn to drive. Although some of these women have international licenses and are familiar behind the wheel, most of them are new to driving and eager to learn. As a way of equipping these women, Enumclaw local Sheryl Vanderwalker traveled to Saudi Arabia to help with the launch of their drivers’ education program.
Vanderwalker retired in 2008 after spending 25 years as a King County Sheriff’s Deputy. She opened up a driving school (Rules of the Road Driving School) and has years of training experience. How did she end up all the way in Saudi Arabia? She was contacted by a fellow trainer from Oregon and asked if she would be interested in the cause. Her answer was a resounding yes!
Vandewalker says, “I have always been interested in moving women forward in the workplace and in the world. With Saudi Arabia being the last country in the world to allow women to drive, I was immediately hooked. We started the process to get to Saudi Arabia with a lot of emails and online meetings. The visa process to enter the country is grueling and takes a lot of time.”
Vanderwalker found the excitement palpable as all the women she met were thrilled about the opportunity to drive. She interacted with women from all walks of life and age groups. Women both young and old expressed a strong desire to learn. And there was a lot to teach – from getting them comfortable behind the wheel to road safety and parking. Vanderwalker talks about the challenges of the job, “The biggest challenge was modifying how we train drivers in America to how drivers can be legally trained in Saudi Arabia.”
Vanderwalker spent her time in Saudi Arabia meeting public officials, college women and a Saudi princess in a campaign to get the public excited for women drivers. She describes the experience as a life-changing one.
She tells us about her incredible adventures and how she fell in love with the culture, “I went to Saudi Arabia feeling a little apprehensive and left feeling like I was leaving family and friends. I found the people to be incredibly friendly, welcoming, intelligent and knowledgeable. They are very aware of their own country’s history, political issues and reputation yet are just as aware and interested in America. I felt more comfortable walking along the streets of Khobar than I do walking along the streets of Seattle. My colleagues and I visited a wonderful camel farm, sat on a Persian carpet, drank Arabic coffee, ate dates grown on the farm, ate a home cooked Saudi dinner and talked for hours with our Saudi partners. What amazing people and an amazing adventure that truly has just begun.”
Vandewalker plans to move to Saudi Arabia permanently to help set up the country’s driver’s education program. In the near future, she hopes to create a driver training program reaching all regions of the country, that will assist women to drive safely and confidently. There is a long road ahead when it comes to complete emancipation in the Gulf nation, but at least women drivers are behind the wheel, ready to embark upon exciting journeys and conquer new destinations.