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To drive or not to drive…the gender debate continues in Saudi Arabia. | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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To drive or not to drive…the gender debate continues in Saudi Arabia.

To drive or not to drive…the gender debate continues in Saudi Arabia.

To drive or not to drive…the gender debate continues in Saudi Arabia.

Riyadh-For more than 15 years, an uncle of Saudi businesswoman, Madawi El Qene”r owned a farm in Tanouma in the Asir region of Southern Saudi Arabia. Another farmer lived close by with his daughter who used to help her father on the farm by driving the plough truck to cultivate the land and harvest the crops. She also drove her father”s car to get household essentials and to sell the crops in center of town.

As a result of a suggestion to permit female drivers in Saudi Arabia, proposed by two members of the Saudi Shura Consultative Council two weeks ago, the controversial debate has been revived. The issue has moved beyond the Shura Consultative council and has become the hot topic of discussion of Saudi society and even in electronic forums.

Local newspapers have also started featuring reports tackling the issue. However, surprisingly, Saudi Television with its four channels has not covered or even mentioned the rising debate regarding authorization of women drivers. This leads one to question the extent of sensitivity in handling this matter. In the past foreign women diplomats used to drive their cars in Saudi Arabia, especially in Jeddah where diplomatic delegations were located. In the Saudi countryside and deserts, Bedouin women drive their cars to help their families. In addition, the women of the Saudi company Aramco and of King Fahd”s University for petroleum and minerals still drive their cars within the compounds. Both establishments are based in Dhahran, East Saudi. Furthermore, some foreign women drive their cars in foreign residential complexes, especially Europeans and North Americans and the concept of has never posed any problems.

This kind of tolerance was granted even from Bedouin society, which is renowned for its stronghold on custom and tradition. So what has changed and why has social tolerance decreased instead of developing?

Dr Aisha al-Manee”, female Saudi academic argues that until recently Bedouins made up 75% of Saudi population. They were distinguished by their respect and commitment to tradition, which was equal in importance to that of religion. In addition to this, they were popular for their genuine belief in other members of society and their lack of ill thinking which they believe stems from ill-mannered people. The Bedouins still exist in Saudi society; however, the number has decreased. Their women, nevertheless, still drive on the outskirts of the cities and in the deserts. She further states that, &#34The issue of women drivers is not a matter of religious debate but rather that of social dispute. How can we relate the simple everyday actions of Bedouins to a current debate? The issue is no longer a question about luxury but rather an urgent necessity that must be addressed. The issue can no longer be marginalized and the authorization of women to drive must be issued in the near future.&#34

Dr al-Manee” adds that Saudi community is just like any other society in that it has its share of good and bad aspects. &#34If our society wants to play on the idea of correcting the ills of society, then perhaps we should first look to prohibiting the planting of grapes and other fruits in order to evade any chance of producing wine. Everything in life can be misused, so why has the debate regarding permitting women to drive become such a major issue? In the past, they told us that watching television is religiously prohibited, they are now found in every household. They also told us that using a telephone is religiously forbidden but it has now become the norm. They argue that if Saudi women are given the chance to learn how to drive, then this will lead them astray. Nowadays, Saudi women do watch TV and talk on the phone and what has changed? In my opinion, political motivations were behind all these decisions and if we are not granted a fair political choice in the debate of women drivers, then we”ll never solve this problem.&#34 Al-Manee” continues to argue that, &#34the stance against women driving cars is not because Saudi society is conservative but rather a misrepresentation endorsed and promoted by mass media.&#34

On the other side of the argument, a Saudi woman describes her experience of driving as painful and unpleasant as she took part in a peaceful protest with 45 other women by driving, 14 years ago. The woman was arrested with the rest of the group for violating the law. Apart from the arrest, they were suspended from their work, especially those in the education sector. After this act of protest, the woman lived in isolation as even her relatives abandoned her as a result of her defiance which in their view was religiously and traditionally wrong. She waits for society to forget the episode, which she believes, was carried out at an inappropriate time coinciding with the Gulf War. She believes that now, however, the issue is widely supported.

The time has now come for women to free themselves from the unjustified law against women driving. Unfortunately, however, our ignorance and intentional disregard of the increasingly important role of women throughout history is what causes us to deviate. But would Saudi women actually take up the opportunity to drive if they were permitted to do so? The female protestor claims that she would not drive again due to the pain that it caused her and the inability of people to forget the incident. She said, &#34We were criminalized and accused of infidelity, but the reaction today would be totally different despite the fact that Saudi society is still as rigid as it was with reference to certain issues.&#34

From Saudi businesswoman Madawi al-Qene”r”s point of view, female foreign diplomats used to drive freely in Saudi Arabia 45 years ago and as female driver, she completely supports the issue. She said, &#34When I drive in the United States, it is completely normal because of the general awareness. I believe in gradual development especially with the issue of women driving because of the responsibility and understanding that it incurs. I hope that no further irrational justifications will be used to deter the permission of women driving in Saudi Arabia.

Drivers are an important part of any society even in those, which allow women to drive such as Bahraini, Egyptian and American societies. By driving, women have the facility to take and pick up their children from school as well as easing household tasks. Weak justifications should not be used to convince society otherwise.

El-Qene”r believes that the gradual introduction of women driving in Saudi society firstly by allowing residing foreign diplomats to drive will increase awareness of female drivers. Saudi women are sometimes harassed even when a male driver is present so security must be ensured. She further asserted, &#34I am optimistic that in 5 years time, women will be driving freely in Saudi but certain requirements and conditions must be set. For example in the United Arab Emirates, women were not allowed to drive after 8 or 9pm.&#34 Al-Qene”r also argues that, &#34Bedouin Saudi society is intolerant mainly because it is a congenitally guided society. It is a society in which the men, when obliged to travel, will ask their neighbor to look after their family during their absence. It is the same society that allows women to receive her husband”s guests, fully veiled and hospitable until her husband arrives. However, social relationships have changed and today, Saudi families do not raise their children well. The method of bringing up children in Saudi should be re-considered and there needs to be an increase in awareness in Saudi society by way of education and mass media. Men need to be taught etiquette when it comes to driving especially if women are going to be sharing the road with them. The issue of women driving in Saudi should not be opposed from a religious point of view but rather because of cultural and social restraints.&#34