by Mahmoud Ahmad
May 20, 2013 - Saudi Gazette
There’s a decided single-mindedness in Saudi society when it comes to making decisions on social issues— especially issues that concern women. Just procrastinate and the issue will fade away. Is it me, or is it really the case that when issues require a firm decision, we either take a long time deliberating or just don’t bother to consider them, allowing them to simmer. In either case, the manner in which we tackle issues is poor at best. In the first case, we are just delaying the inevitable and the second — pushing the decision off with the attitude that out of sight means out of mind — is just wishful thinking.
Among the many issues demanding a decision from society is that of women driving. It has been said that only society can decide whether women should drive, but the question is: How long will this take?
Saudi society is divided on many mundane issues, including teaching English at the elementary level (a necessity of the times), changing the weekend to Friday and Saturday instead of Thursday and Friday ( in line with global necessity), girls’ sports in school (a healthy option for society) and many others. So why should the issue of women driving be any different? The irony is that not that long ago, society was divided on the issue of women going to school. But once the decision was taken society accepted it with the naysayers realizing the necessity of education for both boys and girls. Now those who were once against the idea are used to it and the result is that there are many schools and universities for women in the Kingdom.
Saudi society was and is still divided over the contentious issue of women driving. The division, between those who are all for women driving and those who are totally against it, is deep. Those in favor claim that not only is it necessary for women to drive but it is their right. Saudi women want to be equal to women in neighboring Gulf countries and be able to drive themselves to work or pick up their children from school.
Those who argue for this decision say that women do not want to be held ransom by a house driver who, apart from often being late, in many instances, threatens to quit if he is not given more money. I have read many sad stories of women who are at the mercy of such drivers and their blackmail. Yet many Saudi women, who despite being all for women driving, still vacillate even though they see the necessity. They express their fear of driving— if driving were allowed — fearing a negative reaction from society.
Those who argue against women driving mainly claim that Saudi society is not yet ready for women to drive. They claim that the infrastructure for women driving is not yet established. They claim that women who drive alone will be at risk of being harassed and sometimes attacked. A simple argument they use when comparing men and women driving is to ask whether a woman would be able to change a tire if she were stuck in a remote area. Would she be able to deal with any mechanical issue if the car broke down on the side of the road? My response to these people would be: Can all men do the things we are asking of women? Think it over and you’ll realize that it answers these negative questions.
I had a debate with a friend of mine who was totally against women driving and in his opinion, women who attempt to drive should be severely punished because they will open the door for more vice. He claimed: “If women drive, they will be encouraged to go out alone without permission from their husbands or their male guardians. Therefore, women should be forbidden to drive.”
I ask people who hold this view whether it would be acceptable if a legal guardian or a husband sat next to his wife while she was driving. Invariably they have no answer to that line of reasoning.
I would also like to ask those against women driving alone without a legal guardian if it is acceptable in Islam and in our culture for a woman to ride in a car driven by a stranger.
Society in UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait and other Gulf states has no difficulty in accepting women driving, even though we all share the same values, beliefs and cultural mores. Women in these countries drive wearing Hijab and Niqab and society sees nothing wrong with it. I have also seen how women who drive in these countries are respected and how harassment is virtually nonexistent. They are respected because society is used to women driving and because anyone who attempts to harass women, in general, faces severe punishment.
It is ironic that many Saudi women have been applying for a driving license in the neighboring city of Dubai, according to Lt. Gen. Dhahi Khalfan, chief of Dubai police. However, at the same time the Arabic press has reported that the head of the Kingdom’s traffic department Gen. Abdulrahman Al-Muqbel has said that if a woman was caught driving, then she would be given a traffic fine. Two diverse views, yet the same issue.
We all know that Saudi women in remote areas drive their cars between villages and that people in those areas accept it and do not see anything wrong with it. The women drive from one village to another and get their business done, or some times in emergencies they drive out of necessity.
Speaking to Okaz in a recent interview, Abdullah Al-Mutlaq, former judge at Hail court, said that there is nothing in religion that bans women from driving. He said that Saudi women in villages and remote areas are driving and face no problems. In addition, he said that they (women drivers) are the best drivers and respect the traffic law better than men. He called for a campaign from young Saudi men to respect women when they are driving until it becomes a norm.
It seems that Saudi society needs to get used to this issue. But to get used to it, we need to allow it first. Society accepted the education of women over a period of time. Society accepted satellite dishes, which some people wanted banned, and they are now in every home. Let the same action be taken for women driving. For a start, women above the age of 35 should be allowed to drive within the city. The time may come when we tell our grandchildren that once upon a time women were not allowed to drive in our country, and they will laugh at us in disbelief.
— The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org