In a garage in Jeddah, Saudi women, with their hands dirty, are repairing cars that they were not allowed to drive four years ago.
If the government says it encourages women to work in a highly conservative Muslim state, their entry into a field reserved for men is not always understood.
Ghada Ahmed, an employee at the garage, where five women currently work alongside men, recalls a customer, an ‘old man’ who recently instructed all female mechanics to get out of his car and stay away.
“At first, it’s normal that he doesn’t trust us because I’m a woman,” the mechanic, dressed in a blue uniform and white oil-stained gloves, was in his thirties. “It’s something new for them. Year after year, just looking at the men, they see a woman coming.”
While he was still learning the basics of oil testing and changing tires, he too was plagued by suspicion. “I came home with a swollen hand and I said to myself: + This job is not for me, they are fine +”, he says.
But the skills she learned from other clients and more encouraging comments boosted her confidence. “Someone told me: ‘I’m so proud of you. You respect us,'” recalls the young woman, who said she especially liked interacting with clients.
Petromin, the owner of the garage in Jeddah (west), the big car service company does not hesitate to promote it. Its vice-president, Tariq Javed, believes the initiative will “encourage more women to join the automotive industry at all levels”.
– Husband’s green light –
As part of “Vision 2030” to integrate women into the public sphere, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s strategy is to restore the image of his country and to diversify an oil-dependent economy.
In 2018, Saudi women were able to drive for the first time after decades of being banned. But if he does grant rights, the prince will lead an indomitable crackdown on feminist activists who demand them.
The country has also relaxed so-called “guardianship” rules that control the authority that men have over women in their families. However, Jeddah mechanics claim that they did not work without their husband’s consent.
Before applying for a job offer on Snapchat, Ola Flimbon, then a housewife, said she wanted to know the opinion of her husband Rafat, who helped her prepare for the interview by repeating the name of the spare part.
Rafat Flimban said, “Now he has experience in different types of vehicles, how to change oil, how to inspect cars.
In the garage, Ola Flimbon, 44, has also learned to respond to the most skeptical customers.
“They are surprised that the girls work in this case and ask us how we fell in love with it. This is the most frequently asked question,” she says, explaining for her part that she wanted to know more about cars before driving.
– “Rest assured customer” –
Arriving at his Nissan Ultima, Mitchell, 20, “shocked” to admit that the task of emptying his car had been given to a woman before he changed his mind. “If they’re there, it means they’re formed,” he said. “And maybe they understand my car better than I do.”
In any case, the feminization of the garage makes drivers happier, more “comfortable” in communicating with mechanics, estimates Angham Jeddawi, 30, employed for six months.
“Some girls feel shy when dealing with men. They don’t know how to talk to them about what to do with their car. With us, they can chat freely,” she notes.
For Angham Jeddawi, the task was the culmination of a project he thought was impossible. “My dream was to enter the automotive sector, but for a Saudi woman it was not accessible. So when the opportunity arises, I immediately apply.”
This first experience encouraged him to hit the road on his own and prepare to pass his driving test. And “If I encounter a problem in the middle of the road, I now know how to respond.”