In a garage in Jeddah, Saudi women, with dirty hands, are repairing cars that four years ago were not allowed to drive.
If the government says it encourages the work of women in the very conservative Muslim kingdom, its incursion into a camp long reserved for men is not always understood.
Ghada Ahmad, a garage worker where five women currently work alongside men, recalls a customer, an “old man,” who recently ordered all mechanics to get out and get away from her car.
“At first, it’s normal that she doesn’t trust us because I’m a woman,” said the 30-year-old mechanic, dressed in a blue uniform and oil-stained white gloves. “It’s something new for them. After years of seeing only men, they see a woman coming.”
When I was still learning the basics of oil checking and changing tires, I was also plagued by doubts. “I came home with swollen hands and cried and said, ‘This job is not for me, they’re right,'” he says.
But the skills learned and the more encouraging comments from other customers have boosted their confidence. “A man said to me: + I’m very proud of you. You honor us +,” recalls the young woman, who says she especially enjoys interacting with clients in this job.
Petromin, the large car service company that owns the Jeddah (West) garage, has no hesitation in promoting it. Its vice-president, Tariq Javed, believes that “this initiative will encourage more women to join the automotive sector at all levels”.
– Husband’s green light –
The integration of women into the public sphere is part of “Vision 2030”, the strategy of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to restore the image of his country as perceived as austere and to diversify an extremely oil-dependent economy.
In 2018, Saudi women were able to drive for the first time in decades after being banned. But if he grants rights, the prince also leads a relentless crackdown on feminist activists who claim them.
The country has also softened so-called “guardianship” rules governing men’s authority over women in their families. However, Jeddah mechanics say they would never have worked without their husbands’ consent.
Before appearing on the Snapchat job offer, Ola Flimban, then a housewife, says she asked her husband, Rafat, for his opinion, which helped her prepare for the interview by repeating the spare parts name.
“He now has experience in different types of vehicles, how to change the oil, how to inspect cars. He even inspects mine,” says Rafat Flimban.
In the garage, Ola Flimban, 44, has also learned to respond to the most skeptical customers.
“It’s amazing that the girls work in this field and ask us how we fell in love with it. That’s the most common question,” she says, explaining that she wanted to learn more about cars before driving herself.
– “Relaxed customers” –
Arriving with his Nissan Altima, 20-year-old Mechaal admits to being “surprised” that a woman was tasked with emptying her car, before changing her mind. “If they’re there, that has to mean they’re trained,” he said. “And maybe they understand my car better than I do.”
The feminization of the garage is in any case the happiness of drivers, more “relaxed” in contact with mechanics, says Angham Jeddaoui, 30, who has been 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 feel free to chat,” she says.
For Angham Jeddaoui, this work is the culmination of a project he thought was impossible. “My dream was to enter the automotive field, but for a Saudi woman it was not accessible. So when the opportunity arose, I showed up right away.”
This first experience encouraged her to get out on the road herself and prepare for the driving test. And “if I run into a problem in the middle of the road, now I know how to react.”