Driving Miss Lady

Misha Khan

Saudi Arabia fuels most of the world’s cars, yet refuses to allow half of its own citizens the luxury of driving them; a privilege that is considered by many all over the world a basic human right, a basic women’s right.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia remains one of the most conservative countries in the Middle East and the only one in the world that does not allow women behind the wheel. Home to the world’s largest oil company, Saudi Aramco, the Muslim state has been involved in controversy after controversy revolving around its treatment of women.

During a period when the Arab world is standing up for revolution and seeking a newer, better tomorrow, Saudi Arabia has remained relatively quiet. Well, except for the Saudi women who are fighting for more rights in their own country, and topping the list is the right to drive when they please.

Even though men and women are able to receive relatively the same salaries for a job, it is often compulsory for a woman to spend much of her monthly income paying for a driver. These jobs generally fall to citizens of some foreign country, usually India, Pakistan, Bangladesh or the Philippines. Many families in Saudi Arabia have at least one driver with an average salary of around 2,000 Saudi riyals ($533) per month. Those who cannot afford this assign a male member of the family to drive its women, which often amounts to a time-consuming burden.

The situation is worsened when a single mother is put in the picture. Manal Al- Sharif, an engineer and single mother has struggled with the issue for years, having to rely on her brothers and elderly father to drive her and her children places like to a park or a hospital. If it is not the men in her family, then she has to rely on a taxi. In a video released on YouTube.com several months ago, a frustrated Manal tells her friend behind the camera how humiliating it is begging someone for a small favor or waiting for a taxi to take you to work every morning.

“Let me tell you, I went to take my car to renew the car registration, it was about to expire. And I had to beg somebody to take my car for a vehicle inspection so I could renew my registration,” said Manal. “It is my car, under my name, but I can’t drive it.”
Saudi women took a stand on June 17, 2011 when hundreds of them bravely drove in their family cars expecting to be arrested. However, many received tickets for driving without licenses while others were let go with a warning. There were only a few arrests but many were pleased with the outcome.

Shaima Osama, one of the women arrested in Jeddah that day later said in a statement she tired of being harassed by men while waiting on her driver or a taxi.

“When I am in the car, I am safer because my doors are locked,” Osama said. “If a husband is away from home, the mother looks after everything but if this mother cannot even drive her own children to school, she has to rely on a stranger with her children.”

The upper-middle class and wealthier families are able to afford drivers who stay with them and have worked with them for years and are now trusted. It is still frustrating for the women to simply have to wait around for a person to go to the hospital, to work, to school or to the grocery store.

Women want a license and the right to drive in case an emergency arises as well. This has lead many Saudi women to travel to neighboring countries, such as Bahrain, or the United Arab Emirates to learn how to drive properly and many have been driving with foreign driver’s licenses.

“I actually learned how to drive in the Kingdom with the help of my elder brother who used to take me far away from the city and give me intensive lessons,” Noor Badr told Arab News. “A year later I got a driver’s license from Lebanon.”

Mona Hejazi, 31, and a Saudi citizen was quoted by Riyadh News as saying, “I decided to learn how to drive and get a driver’s license after reading the story of a young woman who rescued her family in the Jeddah floods last year using a four-by-four.”

Another woman Areej Al- Khaldi has been posting videos of herself and her friends driving in the wee hours of the night as an encouragement towards other women to take the wheel as well. There has been no violence or public outbursts of any sort so far. Al-Khaldi claims she and her friends have been driving like any other man would and are in some ways following many more rules. They consider themselves to be safer drivers than their male counterparts.

June 17 was not the first time Saudi women have spoken up for their rights. Back in Nov. 1990 about fifty women took to the streets in their cars in the capital city of Riyadh. Back then, each one of them was arrested but now even members of the royal families are speaking up. Princess Ameerah Al- Talweel, wife of HRH Prince Waleed bin Talal who is worth an estimated 20 billion dollars, said in a statement she is ready to drive. She has full support from her husband and the rest of her family.

Women do not see why driving would make them any less religious and many scholars agree there is actually nothing un-Islamic about a woman driving. Though some call on the oil-rich kingdom to defy the driving ban on women, others argue that it goes against the principles of Islam as women during the Prophet’s time had freedom to ride horses and camels, a means of transportation back then. A car is a means of transportation today.

In the editorial titled “Women’s Day”, the Saudi newspaper called for a change in social attitudes, saying the government can change the rules but it cannot change attitudes. “That is something Saudis must do themselves,” it said.
Men and women alike in Saudi Arabia are hopeful for change but no change is possible without resistance.