Friday, May 3, 2013

Women driving in Saudi Arabia: Forever a thorny issue

Great column printed in the English daily The Saudi Gazette, which was translated from al-`Arabiya. Text pasted in below and a link to the story is here.

Last updated: Thursday, May 02, 2013 6:46 PM

Badria Al-Bishr
Al Arabiya


It is narrated that a semiliterate man liked the phrase “of course” the first time he heard it so he started using it whenever possible. He would go to the grocery store and say: “Give me yoghurt, gum and, of course, matches.” This is why the phrase “of course” exists in a context that has no meaning or significance. I remember this joke whenever I read the statements of officials on women driving cars in Saudi Arabia, an issue which always appears as if it is a huge crisis. So after each statement made, I find myself saying: "Of course, of course". I did so particularly when I read the traffic general director’s response when he was asked: “What would you do if you came across a woman driving a car?” He said: “I would issue a violation against her because she does not have a driver’s license.” Realizing he was caught off guard, he added: “Keep me away from this thorny matter.”

It is truly a thorny issue because it is similar to the mystery of whether the egg or the chicken came first. How can you issue a violation permit against a citizen for not having a driver’s license when your institution does not allow the said individual to attain one in the first place and when your institution does not open a driving school for the person? What if a woman carries a Gulf or Arab or international driver’s license? It is truly “of course” a thorny issue.

But statements on this subject never end. But “of course,” the most important of them are those prepared for foreign consumption. Perhaps the last of these was the justice minister’s statement that the issue of women driving is a social decision. Perhaps this statement has real significance, if one of the judges, who is part of the Ministry of Justice “of course,” has issued a decision to whip a girl for driving a car in the city of Jeddah although she said she only drove the car as a result of a medical emergency of one of her relatives. If the traffic institution issues a violation permit against the woman who drives the car, the judge issues a verdict to whip her and the cleric at the mosque emphasizes that prohibiting women from driving is for the sake of maintaining her morals, how did the whole issue become a social decision? A social decision is one where all circumstances are present to finalize it, and a person either chooses it or not. But enabling citizens to attain their human rights and benefit from developmental projects is not a social decision. Education today is every citizen’s right. Even the state has made it obligatory. Providing and facilitating transportation in the city and issuing laws regulating that transportation is a developmental project and a human right and not a social choice. Social choices do not clash with the laws of prohibition.

Discussions on the issue of women driving have increased, but they have been poisoned by ideological aims and interests. Prohibiting women from driving serves the interests of one party over another. So the issue has become a national concern.

We recently heard of young men who announced that they were willing to volunteer to prevent women from driving by crashing into their cars. One young man who made such a statement was the same man who was flirting with a girl in the market and asking her to take his phone number. But when he sees a girl behind the steering wheel, he says that he will take it upon himself to protect her morals and customs and crash into her car “of course.” I almost said that faking awareness on this issue has complicated it and made it an issue similar to Palestine’s. But I realized that comparing it to the Syrian revolution is closer. The lack of the state’s intervention in finalizing the issue has made the matter “thorny.” People have debated and taken rival stands on the matter, while those in the middle are “of course” afraid of what this rivalry may result in.

This issue has become material for movies. The Saudi movie “Scrap,” which participated in the Gulf Film Festival, is based on the true story of a lady who was arrested by a traffic officer while driving her pickup. The officer found out that she was poor and that she supported herself by collecting scrap. So he escorted her to the police station and asked her: "Where is your guardian?" Her only reply was: "God is my guardian."
All people benefit from the issue of women driving, except women themselves “of course!”

— ­Dr. Badria Al-Bishr is an award-winning Saudi columnist and novelist. She currently lectures at King Saud University's Department of Social Studies. Follow her on Twitter @BadryahAlbeshr

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