In my travels around the GCC, I am often asked a familiar question: Why don't women drive in your country? I tell them that they are not allowed. The next question they put forward is: When will women be allowed to drive? To that question I usually shake my head and tell them that I honestly do not know.
Almost six years ago in October 2005 in his first television interview as King, Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia was put forth this question by a TV commentator of a US network: "Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world in which women are not allowed to drive. It seems to be symbolic of a women's lack of independence. Would you support allowing a woman to drive?"
The king's response to the question at the time was: "I believe strongly in the rights of women... my mother is a woman, my sister is a woman, my daughter is a woman, and my wife is a woman. I believe the day will come when women drive. In fact, if you look at the areas in Saudi Arabia, the deserts and in the rural areas, you will find that women do drive. The issue will require patience. In time, I believe it will be possible. Yes, I believe we can. But it will require a little bit of time... Our people are just now beginning to open up to the world, and I believe that with the passing of days in the future everything is possible."
For many women and men in Saudi Arabia, those words flashed across TV screens throughout the kingdom meant a dawn of a new era, one where the rights of women were going to be given impetus and attention by no less than the king himself. Buoyed by the fact that King Abdullah did not reject the notion that women shouldn't drive or that was an un-Islamic thing to do, many felt that the laws permitting women to drive their own vehicles would soon be put into effect.
Six years on and many are still left wondering. Is it our religion that forbids such a right? Obviously not, or else we would be damning devout Muslim women who enjoy such rights across the globe into a life of sin. Then what is it? Is it our culture, our social norms? Again, this does not seem to be a credible argument, as some towns and villages have womenfolk driving back and forth in pick-ups to farms and fields to help in the harvest or herding of livestock. The arguments for allowing women to drive today are increasing multi-fold. As more and more women enter the work force, they are being inhibited from getting there in the first place. Add the economic dent to hire a family driver and provide accommodation, especially if one is just starting to earn a living. And then again, the inexperience of some drivers has indeed led to many a sorrowful death. Children shuttled back and forth to school are often at risk as well and sometimes subjected to physical abuse. No one can share a greater concern for the safety of a child then the parents themselves. Not everybody can afford the privilege of a family driver.
There is public resistance from some fundamentalist scholars towards granting this right to women. But we should not allow ourselves to be held hostage by the narrow views of such groups, whose edicts in the past have all been directed at the subjugation and control of women. Why are they allowed to pawn their ideology on the rest of us as a religious, cultural or social order? Now I realise the Saudi government has a dilemma on its hands. How do you introduce women driving without causing some major problems? Obviously, women drivers initially will be targets of unwarranted attention. In pockets of our diverse culture, women drivers may feel threatened by those who frown upon increased independence. Apply the zero tolerance rules against anyone bothering women, similar to those I have witnessed elsewhere in the Gulf. Males caught in the harassment of women should have their heads shorn and their photos displayed in newspapers, as in some of our neighbouring countries. And I have not witnessed any moral degradation of their societies.
The government doesn't have to move radically. Begin by establishing driving schools for women. Begin hiring females in the traffic section. Initially allow women accompanied by their male guardians to drive. Restrict the age limitation for women drivers to above a certain age, perhaps 25 years. Limit the driving hours for women between sunrise and sunset initially, until it dawns on us males that their time has indeed arrived. Eventually the novelty of seeing an abaya-clad woman whizzing by in her own wheels will indeed wear off. We see it all the time in the rest of the Gulf. This is the 21st century, and until we remove this obstacle, the chances for women to make a positive impact in our society will forever be limited in their dependency on someone getting to their occupation on time and in one piece.
Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.