By Sabria S. Jawahar
10 October 2013
It’s said that women will be permitted to drive cars when Saudi society is ready. A more accurate message is that women can drive only when men say so because only men can be decision-makers in the Kingdom and only men represent Saudi society.
But as we have witnessed the other day, we now see that Saudi women can be leaders and push forward issues that affect the women they represent. It’s no longer just a man’s world. OK, mostly yes it is. However, Shoura Council members Latifa Al-Shaalan, Muna Al-Mishit and Haya Al-Mani gave a voice to Saudi women by recommending that the ban on women driving be lifted.
This is no small feat and requires considerable courage. They opened the door a crack that brings the driving issue from the streets into the council chambers.
As a workingwoman, I consider the steps taken by the women Shoura Council members a great step toward greater freedom in our choice of transportation. And let’s not limit the issue to transportation because the recommendation in the Shoura Council also respects greater freedom in our lives. The efforts by Al-Shaalan, Al-Mashit and Al-Mani demonstrate the benefits for women like me representing my interests.
Mothers and workingwomen know more than anybody what it means to drive their own car and have full control over our lives. As a teacher of a new generation of young female nurses who regard me with respect and as a role model, I find it incredibly humiliating to travel 70 minutes a day with a complete stranger to reach my workplace and then return home. What is worse is that this same stranger has complete control over the time I arrive and leave work.
Two weeks ago, I noticed my relatively new driver treating me with familiarity that made me feel uncomfortable. He asked me personal questions and angled the rear-view mirror in my direction. One day a female colleague accompanied me on a trip from the university to our destination. My driver insisted in a hostile manner on charging me twice the price because we were both in the car.
I gave him a hard time because he treated us as if we were bus passengers. The next day, he didn’t show up to pick me up for work. When I called, he said he will no longer be my driver. I called the driver’s company for another driver, who first agreed to drive me, then called later and said he wouldn’t be my driver.
This is a common trap many women fall into; a form of blackmail to charge women extra money or to exert control over their schedule. If a woman flirts with the driver, agrees to pay extra from time to time, she is guaranteed trouble-free transportation. But the woman who sees the driver/client relationship as a business transaction is at the driver’s mercy.
Ask a man if they would put up with that kind of behavior. I have seen enough YouTube videos of what Saudi men do to drivers attempting such nonsense. Yet a woman is supposed to take such abuse.
There was a time when drivers were just that — drivers. They acted like gentlemen, minded their own business and looked out for the safety of their passengers. They charged reasonable rates. But drivers have wised up to the fact that women have no transportation rights. There is no advocate for women. They have no protection. Saudi society is perfectly content to hand them their women and let them fend off the abuse on their own.
I am sure the three brave women on the Shoura Council have had similar experience as I have, or at least have heard similar horror stories. They empathize. They know that the new generation of private drivers is exploiting the ban on women driving to satisfy their patriarchal urges and find a way to make more money. The guys? No, they don’t know so much.
I am thinking that the appointment of women to the Shoura Council is finally bearing fruit.