I arrived to Dubai airport last week with my daughter. It was around midnight and I waited in line for a taxi, like I would do in any other country. When my turn came, I was surprised to see a lady standing near the cab, wearing a uniform, similar to the one worn by flight attendants, with Dubai's Road and Transport Authority badge on it. After checking that I've put my luggage in the trunk, she sat behind the wheel and drove.
This is of course was not the first time I saw a female taxi driver, however, I was surprised because I had just arrived from Riyadh where I had just read a statement from a sheikh confirming that prohibiting women from driving in Saudi Arabia aims to “preserve their chastity, morals and safety.” The statement added that they –women – are more likely to make mistakes and violations while driving the car, but most of all, the Sheikh said that “men verbally harass women on the streets and markets, even when they are accompanied by guardians.” He then asked: “What will happen once they drive a car?”
I thought to myself, if the Sheikh could see us now, all the three of us in the taxi, on our way home, which is located half an hour from the airport, without any car bothering us or a reckless man blocking the road; we were truly safe. I have lived these peaceful moments during my stay in Dubai, and I saw women around me driving their cars -- among them unveiled foreign women, veiled Gulf women, women who cover their entire face with a black veil -- and no one dares to mistreat them or assault them. People behave on the streets by virtue of an Islamic law that forbids any assault on men or women. So how can women be safe even in the late hours of the night in Dubai, while women in Saudi Arabia are not safe, even when they are accompanied by their guardian?
Keeping out of harm’s way?
Where is the Islamic responsibility that was revealed in the words of Islam’s Umar ibn Al-Khattaab when he said: “If a mule stumbled, I would be afraid that Allah [God] would ask me, why did you not pave the road for it?” Would he pave the way for mules and not for women? What if someone in these societies came out and told them that women should sit at home and should not go out on the streets, so they can preserve their chastity and manners? What if someone added that when a woman goes out and falls victim to verbal or physical harassment, this is her punishment for daring to leave her house? In which human civilizations or religion is this logic found correct?!
How can Muslims defend this logic? How could women go out, 1,400 years ago, five times a day to the mosque to pray with men without barriers or dividers, only protected by the saying of the prophet: “Do not stop Allah's [Islam’s] women from going to Allah's mosques.” Today, women do not go to mosques, but are rather warned by sheikhs that that they might be harassed even if they are accompanied by their guardians. So the solution is to prohibit them from going out in order to protect them and preserve their chastity according to a logic that is closer to the logic of the desert rather than the country, civil society and religion’s logic.
Women staying inside their own houses will not fix the dilapidated traffic infrastructure, it will rather make us more tolerant to its deterioration; this will not fix the fragile ethics educational system. If the violators do not find women on the streets to harass, they will mistreat other vulnerable employees and animals; they will ruin public places and go astray. Detaining women inside their houses will not make a better community, but instead it will sanctify its mistakes, as it will treat it through temporary hiding it under the rug.
This article was first published in al-Hayat on April 25, 2013.
Dr. Badria al-Bishr is a multi-award-winning Saudi columnist and novelist. A PhD graduate from the American University of Beirut, and an alumnus of the U.S. State Department International Visitor program. Her columns put emphasis on women and social issues in Saudi Arabia. She currently lectures at King Saud University's Department of Social Studies. Twitter: @BadryahAlbeshr