In a country where women are not allowed to drive, bumper cars have become an unlikely alternative to real automobiles. Unlike men, most of whom love nothing more than to bump each other when using the popular amusement park attractions, Saudi Arabian women prefer to cruise beside each other while honing their driving skills.
For reasons that are hard to understand in the Western world, women in Saudi Arabia are still forbidden to drive. Despite moves towards rights for women under King Abdullah before his death, current crown prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud recently said that the Saudi community “is not convinced about women driving”. It’s hard to predict if things will ever change in that regard, but in the meantime, Saudi women have found an ingenious way to practice driving – riding bumper cars.
During the weekly ladies-only night at the Al Shallal Theme Park in the coastal city of Jeddah, women get to set aside their long black gowns and head scarves, and enjoy a few hours of freedom without fear of breaking the law. But according to a recent feature in the Wall Street Journal, the biggest draw of this weekly escape is the park’s bumper car ride. But instead of constantly bumping into each other like the men usually do, they prefer to spend the roughly five minutes behind the wheel avoiding each other and enjoying a smooth drive.
“They love driving the cars,” ride attendant Aman al-Abadi said about the women who always form long lines for the short but sweet driving lessons. They try to avoid as much as they can and the little bumping that occurs often involves one of the drivers trying to take a selfie and taking her eyes of the “road”.
Arwa al-Neami started documenting the bumper car phenomenon in 2014, when she got a bizarre reaction from the other female “drivers”. She was riding in a bumper for the first time in years, at an amusement park in Abha, and decided to chase after the other cars with the intention to bump into them. Her idea of fun was met with a lot of angry shouting. “They would scream: ‘Please, don’t bump me! I am trying to drive!’” the Jeddah-based artist remembers. She has since been following the phenomenon as part of an art project called Never Never Land.
For some Saudi women – especially the wealthy ones – not being able to drive is not that big of an issue, while others go as far as breaking the driving ban by getting behind the wheel of real cars in remote desert areas of the Arab country, where they are least likely to get caught. For most, though, riding a bumper car at the amusement park is as close as they can hope to get to a driving practice session.