Living Saudi: Backseat Driver

By Robin Freeman     October 9, 2016 

 

Nice car Amina. Does it belong to the company?

No, I just bought it.

Congratulations, as I slip in next to her and inhale the smell of luxurious leather. I scan the front, a friendly young driver nods. He’s surrounded by luxury, comfort, and technology. Then I look at my friend and remember she cannot drive her own car. Delegated to the backseat, she senses the puzzled look on my face and sighs.

Mohammed, please take us to the Ramadan festival in Al-Balad (the old city).

As an expatriate, this writer would like to share experiences related to the issue of women not being allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. This subject is contested in and out of the kingdom, although mostly out, on a regular basis. Media and special interest groups often use this unwritten, but practiced law to vilify Saudi Arabia. Ethnocentrism is a huge factor in how populations view each other, and it should be considered when social issues arise.

To be fair, one should consider the writer’s background. First, this article is written by a woman who has driven for many years, experienced its mundane aspects and knows the thrill of the adventure. Second, the writer has lived in K.S.A. for a short time and she has not experienced getting to school or work on a regular basis without being able to drive. Third, the examples given are generalizations and they do not speak for every woman or household in the kingdom.

So how do women get around? Male family members often become chauffeurs, a personal driver is hired, or a taxi and driver service like Uber is used. Additionally, independent bus services are available for women who live in compounds.

Let’s consider some positive aspects of not being allowed to drive:  woman avoid the stress associated with traffic, bad drivers (loads of those here), road rage, tickets, rules, maintenance, and being the family chauffeur. Moreover, to slide in the backseat, crank up the A/C, read the latest news, post on twitter, or just close your eyes and relax a moment is not necessarily a bad thing.

But hold on the negative aspects creep in quick. No public bus service or metro system exists, and male family members are not always reliable. A woman needs to get to work, school, or attend to the needs of a sick child. Uber is a great service alternative to a taxi ride, but not everyone is tech savvy, and availability could be a problem in rural or outlying areas. In addition, the costs associated with a personal driver or a taxi ride three or four times a day is a financial burden. Further, the wait in the hot sun for a taxi or relative to show up can be exhausting.

The government of Saudi Arabia takes its laws and societal norms seriously. Earlier attempts from activists to change the current system failed. Consequently, the daily routine women use in Saudi to get around is in direct conflict with the ideology that supports the notion that women should not be alone with a man other than a close relative. Religious clerics claim danger exists in freedom of movement, and they warn of “weak-minded men,” that could potentially harm an unaccompanied woman while she is out alone (“Saudi Arabia’s Top,” 2016). Consider then the possibilities when a woman gets in the car with a driver, who is almost always an expatriate and a complete stranger.

Admittedly, solutions are far from simple. Most Women do not know how to drive. The standards of driving in K.S.A. are not the same as in other countries. Male drivers in Saudi Arabia pay little heed to the concept of painted lines and drive as if four lanes equal one big lane that personally belongs to them. Besides, many Saudi’s feel things are fine just the way they are.

Last, changes that support Saudi women are needed. Sure, being driven around, bags carried, and social media interaction from the backseat is nice. But that scene can change in an instant as women spend their days managing transportation. Moreover, as outsiders we have to respect other nations norms and values. Hopefully, the Saudi people will continue in a positive direction as they negotiate their own futures.

References

Saudi Arabia’s top cleric defends ban on women driving. (2016). Mail Online. Retrieved 27 September 2016, from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3534591/Saudi-Arabia-s-cleric-defends-ban-women-driving-expose-evil.html

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