When will women drive?

This is the question everyone in and outside Saudi Arabia asks. Last Saturday, October 26, was supposed to be the culmination of a campaign to protest the ban on women driving. With no official numbers, it is difficult to say whether or not the campaign has been a success. But, perhaps more importantly, the women activists got the media attention they were looking for, with YouTube and Twitter the perfect outlets to show their defiance and voice their opinions. They made it to the international media and also succeeded in stirring the debate inside the country once again.

But if that is enough…? The problem is that there is no law in Saudi Arabia that prohibits women to drive. The country simply does not issue driver licences to women and does not accept international permits either. While in the past several women were arrested when caught driving, Saturday’s campaign only saw women getting fines for driving. Perhaps the current campaign got women one step closer to being able to drive. At least women do not get detained anymore for taking the wheel, or so it seems.

On the other hand, apart from the fines they got (300 Saudi Riyals, or approximately 60 euros), the women, along with their male guardian, were forced to “sign a pledge to respect the Kingdom’s laws,” Riyadh’s police deputy spokesman Colonel Fawaz Al-Miman was quoted as saying by AFP. And the campaign’s website, oct26driving.com, was blocked by the authorities on October 25.

Saudi authorities blocked the official website of the Oct. 26 driving campaign.

Saudi authorities blocked the official website of the Oct. 26 driving campaign.

Several weeks ago, my mother-in-law asked me if I was planning to drive on October 26. While I seriously considered it and she told me she would drive (and encouraged me to do so too), I also thought of the obstacles I would face.

First of all, I am a foreigner. If I get caught I could easily be expelled from this country and be banned from entering it in the next 10 years or so. Not really something I am looking forward to. Secondly, I am officially not allowed to drive our car, even if I had a valid driver’s license, because the bank owns it and only authorized Ahmed to drive in it. So no one else, not even another man, would be insured in case something happened. Thirdly, although I have a Dutch driver’s license, the country does not recognize international licenses to people living here (only people coming here on a tourist or business visa are permitted to drive on an international driver’s license).

So no, I did not drive on October 26. (I did a month or two before, at night, but that’s another story and was not to protest the driving ban.) The picture above was taken in June 2011 at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) some 80 km north from Jeddah, where women are allowed to drive. (Picture courtesy of Ahmed AlQassem)

And the latter is a problem for all women in this country. The police can just continue giving fines, because they have no Saudi permit and are unable to get one. I think the only way women could one day be allowed to drive is by continuously pressuring the authorities and the Shoura Council (Saudi equivalent of a parliament), but I expect the driving ban to be eventually lifted by a royal decree, perhaps during the summer holidays, when everyone is out of the country and no one has time to protest the king’s decision. All major changes in the last few years – allowing women in the Shoura Council , changing the weekend to Friday and Saturday, giving women suffrage – have been made this way.

Driving for the first time in our car at KAUST

Driving for the first time in our car at KAUST, June 2011 (Picture courtesy of Ahmed AlQassem)

Here is an overview of the arguments I heard most for not allowing women to drive – and why they are not valid.

1. Islam does not allow women driving.

There is nothing in the Koran about whether or not women can drive. It is known that the wives and daughters of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) did ride camels, the main way of transport in that time.

2. In Islam, something that might lead to something haram (forbidden) is haram.

If we allow women to drive, they could do forbidden things, such as going out on a date, is the argument. But how is this different for women than for men? Can men not go out to meet a woman who is not related to him? Then why not stop driving all together and lock ourselves in our homes?

3. Women are not capable of driving.

Women are too emotional and get panicked easily, some people say, which will lead to them losing control and to an increased number of road crashes. Studies, however, often show that women are more careful drivers than men, as they are less frequently involved in serious accidents. And if this argument were true, then how come in the rest of the world there are no problems with women driving? In fact, Saudi Arabia is one of the most dangerous countries when it comes to road safety. It is the country with the highest rates of road accidents and fatalities in the region and among the highest in the world. Perhaps a little testosterone overdose on the roads?

4. The streets are already crowded enough without women driving.

This one is too ridiculous to even mention, but I have heard this several times, including from women I considered more intelligent than this. Jeddah (and perhaps the other major cities in the Kingdom as well) has some serious traffic issues – no doubt about it. But first of all, should we because of that deny half the population the right to move itself freely based on their gender?  How can you justify such an arbitrary measure? Why not make a law to oblige people to live in the same neighborhood their work or school is, discourage people to use their car by increasing petrol prices (currently at 0.12 euros per liter), or develop a proper public transport system (the government recently decided to build a metro in Riyadh and Jeddah, so that’s a small but good start)? And secondly, most women currently use drivers or taxis to commute in the city. These drivers first have to come to women’s homes to pick them up, then take them to the place they want to, go back (or just drive around) while waiting for the women to call them to be picked up again. At every traffic light you wait, you see at least four (empty) taxis roaming the city in the hope for work. Does this not increase traffic?

5. It is too dangerous for women to drive

Yes, Saudi Arabia is a very dangerous country when it comes to road safety (see also point 4). But it is just as hazardous for men as it is for women. And it is not safer to sit in the passenger’s or back seat than it is to drive. I often feel very unsafe in taxis, because the drivers (often uneducated men from Pakistan, India, Egypt, or Yemen that never had proper driving classes) drive so recklessly.

6. We have bigger issues to discuss than talking about women driving. 

This is the conspiracy argument some people have, saying that this whole issue is a way the government is trying to keep us from addressing bigger, more urgent issues. It’s good these people are aware of the big issues this country has, because it does (human rights, treatment of maids and workers, abuse against women, water shortage, etc.) but then why not just let women drive and focus on those bigger problems? And just because it’s not a big issue for you does not mean it is not important for others.

7. I don’t want my wife/mother/sister/daughter to drive

Ok, fine you wouldn’t allow your wife/mother/sister/daughter to drive (not so fine but that’s another issue, the male guardian system, which we certainly need to address once we can drive) but don’t also restrict the wives/mothers/sisters/daughters of men who have no problem with the women in their family driving.

8. We have the luxury of having drivers to take us around. Why would we want to change that?

I often hear this argument from rich, spoiled Saudi girls/young women. They have a personal driver who takes them anywhere they want, anytime, and are very happy with the status quo. Well, no one would stop you from having your own driver even if you were allowed to drive yourself, but don’t you think your argument is a little selfish? There are so many women who cannot afford their own driver, or who simply want to be independent and not share a car with an unrelated man. Why would you be against that?

9. Women driving affects the ovaries.

Once in a while, a Saudi cleric comes up with his own, very creative way of thinking, such as the sheikh who claimed that driving affects women’s ovaries and pelvis. These simply belong to a bucket of crazy statements by individuals that no one takes serious even here, but that invariably make it to the international media because it’s so much fun to laugh about how retarded that medieval kingdom in the Middle East is and reinforce people’s prejudices about Islam. I often compare it to the statement by the Republican Senate nominee from Missouri, Todd Akin, who claimed that women cannot get pregnant when they are victim of rape (which was later even reiterated by a Dutch politician).

Personally, I think the whole matter comes down to the male guardianship system, under which all women must have a male guardian, whether her father, husband, brother, uncle, or sometimes even son. Most clerics who are against women driving fear allowing them to drive would mark the beginning of the end of this system, as women would be more easily able to go out on their own.

Do you have anything to add to this list of arguments? Add them in the comments section below! Also, if you are against women driving (I am always surprised how many women in Saudi Arabia actually support the driving ban) I would really like to hear your arguments.

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