Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Let Women Drive!

Tuesday, 25 September 2007
By Sabria S Jawhar

THE issue of women driving in Saudi Arabia has again attracted the attention of the West with the insistence of another group of women that they be permitted to drive cars.
In recent weeks I have received a number of emails and phone calls from my Western friends asking me if the likelihood of Saudi women getting behind the wheel will be a reality. Frankly, I'm not hopeful, but it's inevitable that women will be driving on Saudi streets and soon. Saudi Arabia fought long and hard to become a member of the World Trade Organization and it is considering changing weekends to Saturday and Sunday to conform to Western business practices. After all, if Saudi Arabia wants to be a player in the international business community, it's going to have to make some dramatic changes in the way it does business.
Why do we care and what does this have to do with driving? Think about it. The consequences of doing business with Western nations means that more Westerners come here and observe, and, yes, judge our society. To make progress, to become a 21st century society, other countries will judge our sincerity and our will to join the rest of the world by how we treat our own citizens, the expatriates that work here, and whom Saudi society thinks as our national treasure - women.
Let's face the fact that sooner rather than later women driving will become common. But our people fail to recognize the basic failings of banning women from driving an automobile.
The contradiction in government's policy and common sense is that many women, particularly single ones, are exposed to blackmail and financial pressure from drivers who believe they can demand higher monthly salaries from their employers because they know that their passengers are almost helpless when it comes to finding reliable transportation. Many drivers think nothing of agreeing to a monthly wage with their female employer only to demand a pay raise after one or two months. What happens when the employer refuses? He abandons her, forcing her to find another driver and wasting precious time and financial resources.
I also had an interesting conversation with one driver who told me that he never drove a car in his native country and this was not only his first experience at driving but the first as a professional driver. It's a shuddering thought to think that this man was responsible to get me from Point A to Point B in a safe manner.
Many drivers take on several clients, which means women must vie for a time-slot to do their weekly shopping or conduct family business.
As for me, I have, quite often, been forced to cancel appointments simply because my driver failed to show up at proper time or failed to show up at all. I am at the mercy of an indifferent driver. As a professional woman, these severe restrictions on my movement not only affect my job performance but in the end it is a reflection on my employer.
A friend of mine, who holds a responsible position in the Ministry of Health, was forced to take a week off from work because her driver with legal residency ran away and none of the illegal drivers - men without legal residency - agreed to work for her for less than SR 1,700, especially during Ramadan, although she was providing room and board.
I can't even begin to count the number of drivers I have hired and fired and simply lost to a better paying client. Contrary to the perception of both Saudis and Westerners, many Saudi families can't afford a reliable driver and maintain a car. For women like me, I depend on a stranger driving his own less-than-safe vehicle to get me around time. I am at the mercy of his whims and moods.
Westerners ask me the same two questions when we talk: What about the abaya and the hijab and when will I drive. Since 9/11, most Westerners are educated well enough by interacting with Muslims to understand and appreciate what the abaya and especially the veil means to our culture and religion. I don't think any Westerner, as well as myself, understand the logic behind the refusal to allow women to drive.

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