For Farha, a 24-year-old writer who has spent her entire life in Saudi Arabia, this was akin to a Western child learning the truth about Santa Claus. She'd only ever seen men behind the wheel in her country, where women are not permitted to drive. The revelation was slightly scandalous, a little bit funny, and totally paradigm-shifting.
It took another two years for Farha (who didn't want to be identified with her last name due to the sensitivity of the issue in her home country) to decide she would, one day, learn how to drive a car. And, for good measure, she'd learn how to ride a bike. Two modes of transportation that have been banned to women and girls for most of Farha's lifetime.
On Oct. 26, women in Saudi Arabia will engage in the third protest against the female driving ban by getting behind the wheel anyway. The protest won't be widely attended, because the vast majority of women in Saudi Arabia don't know how to drive. There are no driving schools in the Kingdom that cater to females, and state agencies will not issue a driver's license to a woman.
"Since there is no justification for the Saudi government to prohibit adult women citizens who are capable of driving cars from doing so, we urge the state to provide appropriate means for women seeking insurance of permits and licenses to apply and obtain them," a petition at the protestor's web site reads. The web site has been blocked within Saudi Arabia, yet there are still a thousand or so names on the petition. The few women who are adept behind the wheel learned while living overseas, often in the U.S., Canada, or nearby Bahrain or Dubai.
In urban areas, women are chauffeured around by male relatives or paid drivers, or they pay for taxis. In rural areas, the driving ban generally isn't enforced, and more women drive out of necessity. One woman who was recently videotaped disobeying the ban got support from her fellow (male) drivers, who passed by and gave her the thumbs up, a sign that society may be more willing to accept an eventual change.
Learning to drive
Farha tackled the task of learning to drive first by reading about the process. She edited a story on how to drive for her high school newspaper, and from that she felt she learned quite a bit. Then her father spent some time talking to her about how cars work, and the theoretical aspects of driving. He took her out for a few hours over the course of a few days, letting her drive around their neighborhood in the coastal city of Jeddah. But she never ventured onto the main roads.
She also learned the basics of riding a bicycle, but doesn't consider herself adept at either skill. When the ban is lifted, she said she'll sign up for classes at a real driving school.
"I always thought this ban would go away when I was 18," she told AOL Autos. We connected with her through a publication where Farha wrote, under a pseudonym, about the driving ban. "And I'm still hoping it will be lifted when I am 26."
Not driving makes life's everyday movements difficult. Sidewalks aren't available, so walking isn't realistic. Farha's father has mostly been responsible for driving her and her mother around, but five months ago he got into an accident and broke his leg. He is currently unable to drive. Farha feels the burden of her father's injury. If she could drive, she said, she could bring him to doctor's appointments and help him get out of the house. Instead, the family is home-bound unless they pay someone to bring them places.
"I always thought this ban would go away when I was 18," Farha said. "And I'm still hoping it will be lifted when I am 26."
Farha has hired a part-time driver to take her to and from work. It costs about 2,000 to 3,000 Saudi riyals (or around $530 to $800) a month for a driver. That's about the same amount that women make earning minimum wage in Saudi Arabia, prompting many women to just stay home.
"A lot of women don't feel the incentive to work and hire a driver," she said. "It doesn't make any economic sense."
Some women opt for the public bus system, but that makes women from conservative families feel nervous because it exposes them to strange men – the exact problem the country is trying to avoid by banning women drivers. Taxis run the same problem, putting females into cars with strange men. "It doesn't make sense," Farha said.
Farha is considering signing up for a karate class, but she'll have to pay her driver for more hours or take a taxi to the classes. On top of the class fees, the price of getting to and from karate starts to seem like a silly amount of money, she said.
And she worries she's spending too much money on herself. She could spend 30 riyals on a taxi each way, or she could donate that money to a family in need. Or spend that money sending school supplies to girls in other countries.
"It's a difficult decision to make every time," she said.
One unintended consequence of the rule strikes Farha as incredibly unsafe: Women often let their 13-year-old sons drive them around when they are out of other options. Farha's observation was backed up by a U.S. intelligence research note made public by Wikileaks, which noted that these young drivers sometimes get into very serious accidents.
Weird, long history
Oddly enough, there isn't any actual law in Saudi Arabia banning women from driving. In 1991, the late Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheik Abdulaziz bin Baz issued a fatwa prohibiting women from driving. A fatwa is different from a government law, in that only followers of the religious leader who issues the fatwa are obliged to follow that law. But given the intertwined nature of Saudi Arabia's government and its religious leaders, the fatwa took hold. The government agency in charge of issuing driver's licenses will not issue one to a woman. Saudi Arabia's court system relies heavily on fatwas from the Grand Mufti.
So, in essence, the religious order became a rule that everyone follows, even though it's not enforced by the Saudi government. The government just makes it impossible for women to get drivers licenses, and if they catch women driving, they make them sign a pledge promising they won't do it again.
Abdulaziz bin Baz said at the time that the ban would protect women, because allowing women to drive would put them out in society alone, leaving them to mix with men. If women were stranded by the side of the road due to a flat tire or car problem, they could end up being assaulted or raped by a man who came to help them, argue critics who still uphold the ban.
A reporter for the Christian Science Monitor recalled a 2012 conversation with a man in Saudi Arabia about what would happen if the ban was lifted. "What would happen if a woman got in a car accident, he asked? Then she would be forced to deal with the male driver of the other car, a stranger, with no oversight – a problematic situation in a country where male guardianship of women is deeply entrenched."
Just last week, a Saudi cleric came under fire for claiming women were damaging their pelvises and causing birth defects by driving. Sheikh Saleh bin Saad al-Lohaidan argued women should put reason ahead of their hearts, because it "could have negative physiological impacts as functional and physiological medical studies show that it automatically affects the ovaries and pushes the pelvis upward."
Saudi society is slowly inching toward more equality for women. Just this week, four women became attorneys. Earlier this year, women were allowed to work in retail establishments that sell underwear and bras, taking away the embarrassment for women who'd previously had to purchase these items from male salespeople.
Since around 2006, the Saudi government has been indicating it would consider lifting the driving ban if society deems it acceptable for women to drive. Diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks showed the U.S. government has been paying attention to this issue, and putting some pressure on the Saudis to change their ways.
Will of the people?
But it's clear the Saudi government won't make any controversial moves: "This has to do with the will of Saudi society," said Saudi Justice Minister Muhammad Al-Issa in a TV interview in April, according to a translation by the non-profit group MEMRI. "If Saudi society, given its culture, wants women to drive, it's fine. But if society has any reservation for whatever reason, that's fine too."
Farha said she's holding out hope that the rules will change, as soon as possible. But the change will depend greatly on men's attitudes.
"More men certainly support it now, but ... they have their concerns," she said. And "some are outright hostile to the idea."
When she does get her license, Farha said she'd like to try driving a sports car. It doesn't matter what kind, she just would like to try driving something fun. But she'd rather be able to walk or bike to work, even if she could drive.
"Cars feel suffocating inside," she said. "But the whole idea is to lift this difficulty for women. I hope it happens soon."
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