Baby, I Won’t Drive My Car

June 17th, 2011 at 5:16 pm | 11 Comments |

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It’s not only the imams who want Saudi Arabia to keep the brakes on women drivers.

Even some Western-educated, modernist Saudi women are not rushing to join the ongoing campaign protesting the kingdom’s ban on female drivers. These women claim it has less to do with human rights then it does to do with the already congested, dangerous conditions of the roads, and a lack of public transportation.

Lolwa al-Saud, 22, is an American University student who frequently travels to Saudi Arabia to visit her family. She provided FrumForum with a perspective on the contentious issue of women  driving shaped more by on-the-ground — and on-the-road — realities in Saudi Arabia than Western feminist theory.

Al-Saud told FrumForum she had ambivalent feelings about today’s protest in Riyadh during which some 50 women got behind the wheels of cars in violation of Saudi Arabia’s prohibition against female drivers — the only one in force in a Moslem-majority country.

“I want to drive — I like driving — but we are not ready,” she insisted.

Saudi Arabia is not prepared for women behind the wheel, al-Saud believes. Her perspective is not based on religious edicts so much as practical and safety considerations.

While there is no law forbidding women from driving in Saudi Arabia, the monarchy supports the national custom that females not put their feet to the pedals.

Neither the Saudi royal family nor their senior ministers object to women drivers. But they are loathe to antagonize either religious hardliners or conservative elements who believe any tampering with the guardianship system — under which women need permission from their father, husband, or brother to marry, travel abroad or work — would usher in unrestrained Western-style women’s liberation incompatible with Islamic traditions.

But al-Saud, who drives while attending university in Washington, said she opposes a blanket lifting of the ban at this point because it would add more traffic to the kingdom’s already congested — and notoriously dangerous — roads.

“Having women driving is not a good idea right now with that traffic,” she said. “It’s horrible. Rush hour can last all day. There’s even heavy traffic on the streets at 10 p.m., 11 p.m., midnight”.

To travel even relatively short distances, al-Saud added, drivers can routinely expect to spend an hour stuck in standing traffic.

“Having women driving in that traffic is going to cause more chaos than actually help people,” she said.

Saudi Arabia currently has the highest rate of road fatalities in the world. On average there are more than 153,000 traffic accidents in Saudi Arabia per year and 3,500 deaths.

To travel even relatively short distances, al-Saud said drivers can routinely expect to spend an hour stuck in standing traffic, she added.

Instead of lifting the ban preventing women to drive, the government needs to focus on creating public transportation options first, she believes.

Al-Saud, who spent the past month in Riyadh and Jedda, noted the cities both lack buses and metro systems — services which are desperately needed to meliorate traffic conditions.

Currently al-Saud said well-heeled Saudi women depend on either private drivers or taxis to get around. Poorer women are typically driven by their sons or neighbors’ sons.

“We actually like getting dropped off instead of looking for parking or anything. None of the people that I know have a problem with having drivers,” she said. “But there are people who can’t actually afford it, and I understand, but having women drive is going to cause a bigger problem.”’

In emergencies the government typically makes exceptions to the ban, turning a blind eye to women taking relatives to the hospital, for instance, or granting them retroactive permission.

During her recent trip, al-Saud noticed many of the protest campaign organisers were women with foreign roots (like Egyptian and Lebanese) — and that most Saudi women she talked to shared her opinion about a go-slow approach to allowing females behind the steering wheels.

Aside from the chronic traffic problems and reckless driving on Saudi roads, having women behind the wheel could jeopardize their safety in other ways, she said. Women are increasingly being sexually harrassed in Saudi Arabia — even when they are travelling in taxis.

“When I’m in the back seat of the car, I get followed. You get followed by cars and stalked — so just imagine a girl driving,” said al-Saud.

After a proper public transportation system is in place, al-Saud proposes the government gradually change the law to allow women drivers.

“Obviously things are going to change, but you can’t want change right away,” she said. “Everyone [supports] women driving, but it’s about enforcing it at the right time and actually having awareness.”

She believes the idea of women drivers needs to be culturally accepted before any laws are enacted, through programs, television and other public awareness campaigns.

And this is an approach the government has already been considering.

“The government has been looking into [changing driving laws],” she said. “I think the government knows best. They don’t want to cause chaos. They’ve been talking about this [for a decade].”

Furthermore, she said, the government is looking into the feasibility of building urban metro lines in major cities.

Even if the driving ban was to be lifted immediately, al-Saud would refuse to get behind the wheel in her home country.

“If they start having women drive, I’m not going to,” she said. “I want to start driving when I know it’s safe.”

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11 Comments so far ↓

  • Watusie

    OFFS. It is like someone in the 19th C saying that blacks should remain slaves because they’ll find it difficult to find good paying jobs, or someone in the 20th C saying women shouldn’t press for suffrage because there aren’t any good candidates to vote for.

  • valkayec

    al-Saud. Isn’t that the formal name of the royal family? might there be just a bit of prejudice on the side of maintaining whatever the royal family wants in her opinions?

    A while back I read a popular Saudi website in which they (the Saudis) were discussing the right of women to drive. The commentors were all fairly young, mostly well educated. To a large degree they approved of women driving, including all the men. They said the biggest problem for women, aside from the increased harassment which is becoming more endemic in the KSA, is the religious police. The religious police treat women as second class citizens, willing to harass and beat them if they don’t like the way a woman behaves or speaks.

  • arvan

    “I want to drive — I like driving — but we are not ready,” she insisted.

    This is what is known as learned helplessness. If you are treated as subhuman your entire life, you start to accept that maybe you really are just not good enough. The fact that women would actually be made to believe that they are incapable of something as simple as driving a car just goes to further illustrate why they should be allowed to.

    The notion that the roads are too crowded is a lame excuse. That’s like saying the front of the bus is crowded, so of course black people need to sit in the back. And while adding more public transportation is a good thing, I fail to see why this is an either-or situation.

  • Graychin

    The point is that Saudi women should be allowed to drive IF THEY WANT TO. Same with the men.

    Women who don’t want do drive should be free to stay home – just like in America.

  • drdredel

    I agree… we should invade them and liberate them… Anyone paying attention can tell that if you read between the lines, this is what they’re asking us to do.

  • rubbernecker

    ha drdredel. And it’ll pay for itself!

  • ProfNickD

    “I want to drive — I like driving — but we are not ready,” she insisted.

    Speak for yourself, honey.

  • advocatusdiaboli

    40% of the representatives at the Constitutional Convention wanted a limited monarchy (it’s a fact, sorry). would we all be better off had we let them decide? Case closed. Q.E.D.

  • jakester

    Now that I learned how dangerous their roads are, I wish all the Saudi women would start driving immediately and frequently.

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