SAUDI ARABIA: Claiming Our Right to Drive
In 2005, a member of the Shura Council (Saudi parliament) proposed removing the ban on women driving. He was instantly met with ferocious opposition by fellow Council members and citizens alike. He argued that women drove camels during the time of the last Prophet and if he lived in this era, his wives would be driving a car. Many prominent Saudi scholars agree. Former Saudi information minister Iyad Madani was also very vocal in supporting women’s driving, and once called on women to apply for driving licenses.
Prince Talal, the King’s half-brother, hired the first Saudi female pilot for his private jet, yet she cannot drive her car by herself to reach the airports. We are having the wrong conversations.
Even the king agrees that women will eventually need to be allowed to drive, but his lack of a time frame is frustrating. We have been waiting aimlessly for too long. Will women be given the right to drive in my lifetime?
Road Blocks for Activists
Some women who plan to participate in the June 17 campaign have posted their intentions on social networking sites. Others have kept their plans quiet, out of fear of being tipped off by neighbors or colleagues. I spoke with one woman who wishes to remain anonymous, and she told me she plans to drive on June 17, but is trying to remain as discreet as possible until then. She doesn’t plan to post her experience on video sharing sites.
Women own the titles to a large percentage of Saudi Arabia's cars, but due to the driving ban, few women know how to drive. I come from a middle class family. I don’t own a car in my name. I have only traveled outside the country once in my lifetime, and I don’t have an international driver's license (which campaign organizers emphasize is needed to participate). I am deeply disappointed I won’t be able to participate in this historic opportunity.
Jaber, a 32-year-old married woman, doesn't have a license either, but she unequivocally supports and encourages women to participate.
“While we have our own car parked in the garage, I find myself going in taxis just because there's no man available to drive my own car,” she says. “Men say they want to treat us as diamonds by giving us chauffeurs.” She says that men can’t swallow the fact that a woman can function independently.
Prominent activist Wajiha Al-Huwaider won’t be driving a car on June 17 because she doesn’t own one. “I refuse the law that requires bringing a guardian in order for me to buy or rent a car,” she posted on a social networking site. “I refuse to be humiliated like this... I refuse the unfair male guardianship law that deprives women from their basic rights. But, I will support the campaign in my own way.”
Another woman I spoke with wishes to drive, but says she “just can’t.” Because of her foreign nationality, she believes she is more likely to be intimidated or even deported.
There are also women who support the right to drive but disagree with the tactics of the campaign. Sara, a prominent business woman asks, “How about laying the foundation first? Can we meet with the minister of transportation to see how we can get better transportation options for women—especially those that cant afford drivers or buying their own cars? lady only buses?” she suggests on her blog.
I agree that we are a car-obsessed nation and we need a better variety of transportation options. It breaks my heart to see a transport infrastructure that does not cater to women—as if planners never imagined a public transport system would be used by women as well as men.
The organizers of the June 17 campaign say the goal is to retrieve our rights as women; it’s not just about driving a vehicle. The group aims to take on other issues as well, like creating the first Saudi female soccer team. Women driving cars will inevitably lead to calls for appointing female public police, paramedics, and more women in the judiciary system—and this scares many.
Although detractors have attempted to sideline the driving campaign by characterizing participants as members of "third parties," organizers say the action is not political. “We will drive on June 17 carrying pictures of our king and flags of our country.” . . .