Driving to Freedom: Saudi Women’s Struggle

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Saudi Women Driving
Saudi Arabia has the unfortunate distinction of being the only country in the world that bans women from driving. However, many are hopeful that King Abdullah could change the laws, as he has been pushing for reforms, and have for the first time in history included women in the country’s powerful Shura council.

As many of you know, I’ve always disagreed with many of the laws set by Saudi Arabia, but in particular with their law prohibiting women from driving. Westerners, as well as some Arabs, see women as oppressed in the Arab world, but more so in Saudi Arabia. The wealthy women of Saudi can have anything they wish for: money, mansions, designer outfits, maids and cars.

But let’s focus on cars. Now they can have any car model they like: Ferrari, Bentley, Mercedes, you name it, they can have it. But what about really enjoying that car? And by “enjoying” it, I mean driving it. Let’s face it; just as they say “The proof of the pudding is in the eating,” I say “the joy of the car is in the driving.”

Many girlfriends of mine often say: “oh, I would love to have a chauffeur; I want to be driven around everywhere, they’re so lucky.”  Truthfully, it would be nice to be chauffeured around every once in a while, but everyone must experience the joy and adrenaline rush you get from driving a car. My friends are missing the point. This is about a basic freedom; this is about a basic right.

Please don’t confuse this with religion. This is purely cultural; this is a law that was made up by someone who enjoys controlling women in a very bizarre way, to say the least. In fact, here’s a little story I was told by a Saudi friend of mine: He would often get dressed up in a black abaya (traditional long black dress for Saudi women) and a veil covering his face, while pretending to be his girlfriend’s friend.  They would both get into her car, her driver oblivious to the fact that another man was riding with them, and eventually into her bedroom.

This is just one of many more similar stories that I was told about while living in Saudi. I could go on forever telling you stories about all sorts of things some women get up to in their cars, so does banning them from driving really have a point? If someone wants to get up to something “bad,” they will always find a way to do it.

When in 2011 women’s rights activist Manal al-Sharif was imprisoned for nine days for driving a car in Saudi, I honestly didn’t know whether to cheer or cry. Cheer, because it was a proud moment in history, and cry because the response to her actions was extreme.   The incident caused major controversy worldwide; thousands of people stood by Manal’s side, while many argued that her actions were wrong as she was breaking the law. We’re in the 21st Century; does that mean nothing to them at all?

Let’s quickly remind ourselves of how women gained their rights in the first place: They fought back = they gained rights. If peaceful campaigning, such as lobbying the government, hasn’t succeeded for years, then why not do what Manal did? I’m not promoting violence in any way; I’m all for peaceful protest and the use of constructive dialogue, but in my opinion this is a cause that is worth fighting for.

If there was a logical argument behind this (from the Saudi government’s point of view) then I wouldn’t be writing this article in the first place. But there isn’t one. Realistically, no harm can come from women driving a car. In fact, it’s more hypocritical to leave women alone with their male drivers in the supposedly gender-segregated Saudi, and even more hypocritical to let them drive when travelling abroad.

Evidently, this is never going to end well, because when you tell someone not to do something, they are going to want to do it even more. So the next time you tell your kid not to eat that Christmas cookie, well guess what, Santa didn’t eat it!   Yes, we need limits and laws to control, monitor and ensure that we have a stable and secure society, but those limits require their own limits as well.

Another thought: what about bicycles? Are they not allowed to ride those as well?

I will leave you all with one final thought: A Saudi friend of mine was given a beautiful top-of-the-range Range Rover Sport by her billionaire father. She, of course, had a chauffeur as she was not allowed to drive it herself, even though they lived in London. One day I asked her: “if you could have one thing in the world, what would it be?” She whispered: “Freedom.”

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