Women driving in Saudi; forever a thorny issue

Badria al-Bishr

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It is narrated that a semiliterate man liked the phrase “of course” the first time he heard it so he started using it whenever possible. So he would go to the grocery shop and tell the seller: “Give me yoghurt, gum and of course matches.” This is why the phrase “of course” comes within a context that has no meaning or significance. I remember this joke whenever I read officials’ statements on women driving cars in Saudi Arabia, an issue which always appears as if it is a huge crisis. So after each statement made, I find myself saying; of course of course. I did so particularly when I read the traffic general director’s response when he was asked, “what will you do if you come across a woman driving a car?” He said: “I will issue a violation against her because she does not have a driver’s license.” Realizing he was caught off guard, he said, “keep me away from this thorny matter.”

A thorny issue

It is truly a thorny issue because it is similar to the mystery of whether the egg or the chicken came first. How can you issue a violation permit against a citizen for not having a driver’s license when your institution does not allow the said individual to attain one in the first place and when your institution does not open a driving school for the person? What if a woman carries a Gulf or Arab or international driver’s license as per international agreements worked upon in Saudi? It is truly “of course” a thorny issue.

How can you issue a violation permit against a citizen for not having a driver’s license when your institution does not allow the said individual to attain one in the first place?

Badria al-Bishr

But statements on this subject never end. But “of course,” the most important of them are those prepared for foreign consumption. Perhaps the last of these was the justice minister’s statement that the issue of women driving is a social decision. Perhaps this statement has real significance, if one of the judges, who is part of the Justice Ministry “of course,” has issued a decision to whip a girl for driving a car in the city of Jeddah although she said she drove to medically aid one of her relatives. If the traffic institution issues a violation permit against the woman who drives the car, the judge issues a verdict to whip her and the cleric at the mosque emphasizes that prohibiting women from driving is for the sake of maintaining her morals, how did the whole issue become a social decision? The social decision is one where all circumstances are present to finalize it. But the person either chooses it or not. But enabling citizens to attain their human rights and benefit from developmental projects are not social decisions. Education today is every citizen’s right. Even the state has made it obligatory. Providing and facilitating transportation in the city and issuing laws on them is a developmental project and a human right and not a social choice. The social choice does not clash with the laws of prohibition.

Discussions on the issue of women driving have increased until they were poisoned with ideological aims and interests. Victory to prohibit women driving became a gain that serves the interest of a party against other. So the issue became a national concern.

A confused young man

We recently heard of young men who announced they are willing to volunteer to prevent girls from driving by crashing into their cars. This young man who says these statements is the same man who was flirting with a girl at the market and asking her to take his phone number. But when he sees a girl behind the steering wheel, he will take it upon himself to protect her morals and customs and crash into her car “of course.” I almost said; faking awareness in this issue has complicated it and made it an issue similar to Palestine’s. But I realized that comparing it to the Syrian revolution is closer. The lack of the state’s intervention to finalize the issue has made the latter “thorny.” People debated and became rivals due to the matter, whilst those in the middle are “of course” afraid what this rivalry may result in. This issue has become material for movies – a few of which are in Saudi. The Saudi movie “Scrap,” which participated in the Gulf Film Festival, is based on a true story of a lady who was arrested by a traffic officer whilst driving her pickup. The officer found out that she is poor and that she supports herself by collecting scraps. So he escorted her to the police station and asked her; where is your guardian? She had nothing to say but: God is my guardian.

All people benefit from the issue of women driving, except women themselves “of course!”

This article was first published in al-Hayat on May 1, 2013.


Dr. Badria al-Bishr is a multi-award-winning Saudi columnist and novelist. A P.h.D 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

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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