From behind the wheel to under the hood
JEDDAH, SAUDI ARABIA (AFP) – An auto repair garage in Saudi Arabia is turning to an untapped source of new auto mechanics: Saudi women, who just four years ago weren’t even allowed to drive.
At the Petromin Express garage in Jeddah on the Red Sea coast, new female recruits check oil and change tires alongside their male counterparts, part of a nationwide campaign to attract more women to the labor market.
Yet women interns have, perhaps inevitably, encountered a host of obstacles when entering a male-dominated field around the world – and even more so in the conservative Muslim kingdom.
Several have said AFP their first few months on the job brought flashes of self-doubt, skepticism from those closest to them, and outright hostility from some clients.
An “old man” who passed by the garage immediately ordered all the women out, saying he didn’t want them near his car, rookie Ghada Ahmad recalled.
“At first it’s okay not to trust us, because I’m a woman and he doesn’t trust my work as a woman,” Ahmad said, wearing grease-streaked white gloves and a long blue overcoat. .
“It’s something new for them… After years of only seeing men, now comes a woman.”
As she struggled to learn the basics, Ahmad had moments when she wondered if such men could be right.
“I used to come home with swollen hands, crying and saying, ‘This job isn’t for me. It seems their words were correct,” she recalled.
But as his skills improved, so did his confidence – helped by other customers who were more encouraging.
“A man came and said, ‘I’m very proud of you. You honor us. You are a crown on our heads”.
Expanding women’s rights is at the heart of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s Vision 2030 program to diversify the oil-dependent economy.
The most publicized change came in 2018, when Prince Mohammed, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, oversaw the end of a decades-old driving ban.
The country has also relaxed so-called “guardianship” rules that give men arbitrary authority over women in their families.
These measures have reinforced Prince Mohammed’s reputation as a champion of women’s rights.
Yet women mechanics in Jeddah told AFP they could never have started working without their husbands’ consent.
Ola Flimban, a 44-year-old mother of four, first heard about the jobs from a social media post and immediately asked her husband, Rafat Flimban, if she could apply.
Rafat agreed and helped his wife prepare for the interview by teaching her the names of the spare parts.
“Now she has experience in different types of cars, how to change oil, how to check cars. She even checks my car,” he said.
Home support made it easier for Ola to deal with wary garage customers.
“They are surprised that girls are working in this field and ask us to explain how we fell in love with this field,” she said. “That’s the most common question.”
As she spoke, Mechaal, 20, arrived in his silver sedan for an oil change. He admitted to being “shocked” that the task was being carried out by a woman, but he quickly recovered.
“If they’re here, that must mean they’re trained,” he said, “and maybe they understand my car better than I do.”
Petromin Vice President Tariq Javed said his company was “confident that this initiative will encourage more women to join the automotive industry at all stages”.
The company said its training covers “all express services, including oil, battery, tires, air conditioning and other automotive requirements.”
Perhaps the biggest winners of the company’s initiative are the city’s female drivers.
“We relax the girls when we operate on their cars,” said Angham Jeddawi, 30, who has been in the garage for six months.
“Some girls feel shy when dealing with men. They don’t know how to talk to them and they don’t know what we’ll do with the car. But with us they’re free to talk a lot.
For Jeddawi, the job fulfilled a lifelong goal she once thought was impossible.
“My dream was to enter the automotive sector, but for a Saudi woman, this field was not available. So when the opportunity came up, I applied right away,” she said.
The knowledge she gained encouraged her to hit the road herself.
She studied for her driver’s license and hopes to have a license within a month.
“If I face a problem in the middle of the road, now I know how to react,” she said.