Last Wednesday was a milestone moment when I bought my first car. Two Wednesdays before that, I passed the practical test. People always say driving holds a certain freedom and until you’re able to roam the roads freely, you never really know how true that is.
Had I, or any other female, attempted to conquer this feat in Saudi Arabia where women are to adhere to a de facto ban on driving, let’s just say we’d have a seriously long wait. Last week, the sheer shock of reading that a husband was in fact divorcing his wife after she sent him a video of her driving, not only infuriated many – myself included – but also sent a blunt reality check to the hundreds of thousands of women around the world who don’t exercise their rights enough.
The news definitely caused ripples in Saudi Arabia, reportedly splitting the country’s social media users. Whilst some defended the husband in question for standing up for the country’s laws and traditions, others were aghast at the thought of a family being broken up over something as trivial as driving.
The driving ban in Saudi Arabia has been a focal point within campaigns seeking a change where women are able to exercise equal rights. Public figures such as President Barack Obama and Princess Ameera al-Taweel, a Saudi Arabian Princess and philanthropist have both spoken out about the restrictions placed on women, particularly when it comes to driving. Efforts to improve women’s overall empowerment to contribute fully in Saudi society alone says a lot about the issue of inequality that these women face.
It’s easy to ignore other people’s struggles around the world, until of course it becomes our own. Saudi officials may feel that by allowing women to drive, it somehow strips away a sense of traditional values, whereby women are usually expected to assume the role of the dutiful housewife and doting mother.
Gender segregation, women opting to leave the house more and perhaps interact with non-mahram males are at the centre of Saudi Arabia’s argument when it comes to justifying this controversial ban. Surprisingly there is no written law that deems it illegal for women to drive in the country, however as you need to obtain licenses to drive and these aren’t issued to women, it effectively makes it forbidden.
In a 2008 interview with Barbara Walters, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia touched on the subject saying: “I believe strongly in the rights of women. My mother is a woman. My sister is a woman. My daughter is a woman. My wife is a woman. I believe the day will come when women will drive. In fact if you look at the areas of Saudi Arabia, the desert, and in the rural areas, you will find that women do drive. The issue will require patience. In time I believe that it will be possible. I believe that patience is a virtue.”
Women have been waiting for decades in order to step out of their husbands shadows and be their own person. Rather than being scared of their wives losing tradition and values, it could be assumed that men are more concerned about losing power, control and authority by giving women a taste of the freedom they enjoy. Does allowing them to drive mean they will become disobedient, non-religious rebels? Absolutely not. What it will mean though, is giving them the chance to be independent and proud that they are able to enhance the current life they live. Surely that’s not a bad thing?
What’s unacceptable though, is the thought of a man being so threatened that he would actually divorce his wife to retain some – if any – control. This sort of mentality makes it impossible for women to fight for freedom when the men around them would rather they be chained to the constraints of their current lives.
Of course there may be some women who like that the Kingdom differentiates itself and is free from any Western influences – which is understandable. But shouldn’t women at least have the choice to drive, work and seek education?
Ameerah Al-Taweel (above), who was married to Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, has been a fierce advocate for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. She too, echoes the same thoughts and sentiments about it being time for bans to be lifted and for women to be given equal rights.
“The most daunting challenge is not only the legislation but it is the concept, the mentality [of Saudis] because we know our society is very conservative and is very private and it’s very difficult to change concepts in Saudi Arabia to support women in the work place or to have a larger contribution [in society],” she explained at a panel discussion at the World Economic Forum in Jordan last year.
Slowly but surely, women are pushing those boundaries and forcing people – and the world – to take notice. Videos and images of women driving in Saudi Arabia surfacing online and on social media may not be such a big deal for you and I. For Saudi women living in the region however, it is a monumental risk they’re willing to take, all for the sake of their freedom.