Driven to despair - Sameera AzizIn his reply to a pointed question from Barbara Walters of ABC News asking him whether he would support allowing women to drive, King Abdullah, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, was forthright. “I believe strongly in the rights of women ... my mother is a woman, my sister is a woman, my daughter is a woman, my wife is a woman,” he said. “I believe the day will come when women drive. In fact, if you look at the areas in Saudi Arabia, the deserts and in the rural areas, you will find that women do drive. The issue will require patience. In time, I believe it will be possible.”
Prodded further about the exact time when women could get behind the wheel, King Abdullah added: “Our people are just now beginning to open up to the world, and I believe that, with the passing of days in the future, everything is possible.”
That interview took place more than five years ago but the question still remains about when women could be allowed to drive.
And, to be honest, this is a question I have never tired of raising at any forum that upholds women’s rights. In fact, at about the same time that Walters was raising this issue with King Abdullah, I was putting this question before the Jeddah Economic Forum.
It is a question that is very close to my heart and that, I believe, of every woman in the Kingdom. However, I was in for a rude shock. I had barely finished my question at the elite gathering, when one of the key speakers cut me short: “This is the dilemma of our society; young Saudi women of today, like you, just think of seeking permission to drive in the Kingdom, rather than focusing on and nurturing their marital life,” he had scoffed and continued deploringly. “Think of seeking a good groom for yourself rather than wasting your time on such non-issues.”
According to him, we should be concentrating on more fruitful issues instead: like finding ways to reduce the increasing number of divorces in our society! I will refrain from naming the speaker, who is elderly and respectable, but his unexpectedly harsh and offensive reply took me completely by surprise. I had promptly gathered myself and presented my case. “Sir, I was speaking on the issue of women driving in general,” I explained. “However, if you are interested in talking about me personally, for your kind information, I am already married and my husband believes I am a very caring homemaker. I know how to nurture a good marital life. Personally, I would probably prefer to pamper myself by being chauffeur driven but, equally, those women who want to drive should be allowed to drive. And I was speaking on behalf of all those Saudi and expat women, who don’t want to depend on drivers.”
Saying this I walked out of the hall. I can only guess what his response would have been because I left behind a silence that raised more questions than he could answer.
While I was sitting in the lobby for the next session, however, I found several supporters. Many young girls came out and voiced their disgust.
“We are fed up. They don’t consider it (driving) an issue at all. I can’t afford a driver but I am forced to pay him,” said one. “On one hand, we talk about non-Mahrams (strangers) but, on the other, our menfolk think nothing of allowing us to go around town accompanied by these drivers who are also non-Mahrams,” added another. “How long are we going to depend on our drivers to take us where we want?” questioned yet another.
I could go on but you probably get the drift. Clearly, women were frustrated at being put down at every forum and a key issue like this was simply put on the backburner.
However, after five years of harsh and haunting debate, I believe things are changing. People are now open to the idea of at least discussing the issue of women driving.
There was much confusion over what the law says about women driving when Manal was arrested.
The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice washed its hands off Manal’s case saying it did not fall under its jurisdiction because she had apparently committed a violation of the law.
The police, on the other hand, claimed it had nothing to do with this as Manal had not committed any security violation. It was a traffic violation, it said, which was under the traffic department.
Though it was indeed the traffic department that finally leveled the charges, it was evident that they were confused about the issue. And the reason for that was simple: they had never handled a woman violator before! There was some certainty provided this past week when Prince Ahmad Bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, Deputy Interior Minister, said that the ban in the country was still in place, according to the Ministry of Interior website. “… a statement has been issued in 1411H, which banned women driving cars in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The Ministry of Interior still implements this regulation but we could not say that this is correct or incorrect because it is not our work; we are responsible for implementing the regulations.”
Whatever the points of view, confusion should be cleared and the issue needs to be addressed quickly. After all, women comprise more than half of the Kingdom’s student body. While the transition from education to employment is already hard for Saudi women, it becomes even harder for them to find the resources to pursue a successful career. And creating feasible transportation is a key factor here.
Being dependent on others for something as basic as getting from one place to another can be frustrating. And more so when one has to depend on a complete stranger to fulfill this need. There is little doubt that most women would feel safer behind the wheel of their own car rather than meet the roving eye of her limousine driver or the lecherous taxi driver who makes unnecessary conversation and drops broad hints.
Men need to understand that women in the Kingdom are simply asking for their right. They are not demanding unnecessary freedom by seeking permission to drive.
And those who are depriving them of this need to be cautioned. As uprisings are sweeping the Arab world, the climate is ripe for protests. Take Najla Hariri, a Saudi housewife in her mid-thirties, for instance. Najla apparently took to the road in a direct challenge to the ban on female drivers. Najla claimed to have drawn inspiration from the Mideast protests.
Now, hundreds of activists have already set up Facebook groups and campaigns calling for Manal’s release and an end to the driving ban. A Facebook page titled “We are all Manal Al-Sharief: a call for solidarity with Saudi women’s rights,” has been growing in popularity.
Contrary to that, the deplorable ‘Iqal campaign’ has been also launched on Facebook calling for men to beat Saudi women who drive their cars in protest. The renowned novelist Abdo Khal, writing in Okaz, condemned the ban on women driving, and said he did not know “whether to laugh or cry” over the proposed Iqal campaign.
Whatever be the case, the fact remains that Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world in which women are not allowed to drive. Thus, every time the issue is raised in the global arena, it will give the Western media another chance to take potshots at women’s lack of independence in the Kingdom.
If Saudi men continue to oppose women driving, there seems little doubt that the authorities have to brace themselves for more Najlas and Manals on the streets.
— Sameera Aziz is International Editor at
The Saudi Gazette __