I know it’s been a long time since I posted anything here, and I don’t really have an excuse for my absence. However, I’ve recently come across an issue that I would like to give a little global exposure to, and what better place than OS where there are so many people who are open minded and passionate.
One of the best local papers we have here in Saudi is the Arab News, and this paper has had a few interesting articles in recent months about the same topic from different view points. That topic is women being allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia.
Starting with the most recent, a friend sent me an article that was published today (Monday, 23rd May, 2011) entitled “Adventure behind the wheel lands Al-Sharif in custody again”. I’ve placed the link at the bottom of the post so you can read the full article, but the general gist is that a woman by the name of Manal Al-Sharif was arrested after she drove her car around the Dhahran area (very close to where Ger and I live) and she posted a video of herself on YouTube talking about the challenges women in Saudi Arabia face when relying on drivers.
I’d read about another woman and the campaign they are associated with (I’ll get to that in a second) relatively recently, but this article stood out from previous mentions as it points out that there is no actual law forbidding women from driving. There are fatwas (instructions from religious clerics) issued against women driving, but there is absolutely nothing in the legislation. The lawyer interviewed, Adnan Al-Saleh, compared it to the fatwas issued against smoking whilst cigarettes are widely distributed and used across Saudi without a second thought.
I’d always thought a woman driving was illegal; it turns out we’d all simply assumed it was because it wasn’t done.
The campaign I mentioned before began life on Facebook, as many campaigns are wont to do in this Social Media era. Known as the “Teach me how to drive so I can protect myself” campaign, the founders have called for women to get behind the wheel of a car on the 17th of June and start driving in protest. It’s interesting to note at this juncture the words of Manal Al-Sharif’s lawyer in today’s article:
“Manal’s decision to drive was strictly personal and not linked to any group or ideology. If she had driven on the day of the campaign, planned for June 17, that would have been considered a demonstration without coordinating with the authorities concerned. That would have given the government the right to take legal action against her.”
I think it’s absolutely fantastic to see that 13,000 people have joined the Facebook page and it’s truly inspiring to see women finally take a stand as a united front on something they are passionate about. I’ve said from the start that change for women will come to Saudi, and they would bring it about themselves and it seems as if they are finally on the brink. However, as you can tell from the lawyer’s quote, they have an uphill struggle ahead of them. It may not be illegal to drive, but it is illegal to protest and make your voice heard. The campaign has focused itself on the issues of women having to drive in emergency situations and not knowing how and women in low income families who cannot afford to pay taxis, let alone have a personal driver.
Of course the desire to drive stems as much from these reasons as it does from relying on a driver or taxi, and I can tell you from over two years experience out here that it is a logistical nightmare. Not once in my two years and four months here have I been on time for work, and that’s with a driver provided by my own company who has a vested interest in getting me to my desk as early as possible. And don’t get me started on the taxi drivers I call. I’ve lost track of the amount of times I’ve heard “yes ma’am, five minutes ma’am” and was still waiting, stranded at a mall where everything was closed for prayer from noon till four, an hour later.
Having lived it with them I am fully behind them. That’s why I am always a little taken aback when I speak to, or hear about, a Saudi woman who has no interest in driving. Another Arab News article that caught my eye was published on April the 13th, 2011 called “Not all Saudi women seeking to drive cars” (again the link is below).
The first woman quoted in the article gets my back up immediately by saying she has no interest in driving because she’s too damn lazy to walk from her parked car into the mall. Not only was one of the proudest moments of my life when I first parked my own car at a supermarket and walked myself in there having done it without relying on someone else, but I thought it was a seriously bad way to open an article against women driving. Women shouldn’t drive because they might have to walk somewhere? Come on!
However, as I kept reading I did come across some valid reasons why women would be against getting themselves from A to B. For instance, the local men following women everywhere and this being frightening enough as it is when you’re in the back of a tinted car; I can attest to this, it’s disconcerting, pathetic and down right irritating but also an issue for another blog. The one I understood most though is the reaction of the deeply religious to a woman who dares to not even cover her face, let alone drive a car. I think this could lead to some potentially very dangerous situations for women drivers, especially when you consider so many of the roads here go on for long, deserted stretches where you would be completely exposed and vulnerable.
On a balanced view though, I was still all for women, on the 17th, giving a firm two fingered salute to the culture of depriving women of such a small amount of independence. After all, saying women shouldn’t drive because men have been doing it for longer and are therefore better at it is simply not good enough. Many women here have lived in Bahrain, Oman, and Dubai etc. where they have driven themselves quite safely, not to mention that women all over the world get lower insurance rates because it has been proven that they are naturally more cautious and safety conscious drivers than men.
Then I remembered an article my lovely husband, Ger, referred me to a few months ago. We’d been with friends and the (Western) women in the group were bemoaning the fact that we couldn’t drive and we missed our cars and Ger said, with no note of apology in his voice, that he would not let me drive even if they introduced a law that allowed it. You can imagine the uproar from the assembled women, all of whom are passionate, full on 21st century women not used to being kept down simply because of their gender. None of us expected such a medieval response from a man we all know is generally so passionate about equal rights.
His point of view, although admittedly also from a place of concern for my safety given the inevitable reaction of religiously zealous men (and women if I’m honest), was heavily influenced by an article in the Arab News published on the 7th of March, 2011 called “Imagine if women could drive”. It is one of the best pieces I have ever read and I know you will all appreciate it for the writing style and ability if nothing else. It was written by Somayya Jabarti, she opens by encouraging the reader to imagine it’s the year 3000 and women in Saudi had been granted the right to drive, but that is all that had changed about the country.
By the time I was done reading I saw the bigger picture. I’m not going to spoil the reading experience for you by waffling on about the contents, it’s the last link at the bottom of the page, but when you’re done reading I’m sure you’ll believe me when I say that there are so many things that need to change here in terms of women’s rights that being allowed to drive is a very small thing and really should be a bit further down the list of the battles to pick. With any luck the campaign on the 17th of June will be one of those small stones that, upon falling from a great height, creates the echo that triggers an avalanche.
Whilst I still support the brave women that are taking a stand on this issue I hope that this article gets people thinking about how lucky they are to live in countries where the women’s rights revolution has already, for the greater part, done its job and cause you all to spare a thought for the monumental battle that is ahead for Saudi women.
Thanks for reading.