Lifting the Driving Ban: Now Give us Somewhere to Drive

by Kaima Ali
arab woman with nowhere to drive
Lack of jobs and venues for women means driving is pointless
Like most Saudi women, I didn't join the campaign to drive so I can get behind a wheel and drive aimlessely around Highway 40. Luckily, I can now enjoy a drive to and from work, but even this has become a rarity now that I can work from home. For some, or for most, finding employment is a bigger obstacle to freedom than being able to get behind a wheel.

According to the International Labour Organization, Saudi women constitute 18.6% of the native workforce. The rate of participation has grown from 15.3% in 1990 to 18.6% in 2011. That's a whopping 3.3% increase in 11 years! And if trends continue, and they most likely will given the new draconian employment laws requiring spousal consent, we can expect an even slower improvement rate in female employment.

Employment for women has a number of restrictions under Saudi law and culture. According to the Saudi Labor Minister Dr. Ghazi Al-Qusaibi (speaking in 2006):

the [Labor] Ministry is not acting to [promote] women's employment since the best place for a woman to serve is in her own home. ... therefore no woman will be employed without the explicit consent of her guardian. We will also make sure that the [woman's] job will not interfere with her work at home with her family, or with her eternal duty of raising her children…

This is exasperated by the Male Guardianship system and locations that when frequented by lone females is culturally frowned upon.

Not that such places are ideal locations in the first place for females to enjoy; being places that cater exclusively to male interests such as racing, arcades and soccer grounds. And who wants to drive down a highway that's fallen victim to the latest craze, sidewalk skiing?

The job market in Saudi Arabia is a male-driven environment. Nowhere is this more evidenced than the job agencies which are staffed by males who refuse to contact female candidates. As one recruitment consultant told this writer:

We’re frequently told to only contact female candidates in the absence of strong male candidates. Our policy conforms to what many of us would not be comfortable doing, namely, that most of still feel awkward contacting households and asking to speak to a wife or daughter

A cynical person might even infer that the reason the driving ban was lifted precisely because we wouldn’t have anywhere to go.

The driving ban was a symptom of inequality and lifting the ban is merely a cosmetic change if the act of driving is itself subject to restrictions, either imposed inadvertently or cultural misogyny.

If some feel placated by lifting the ban then they are doing a disservice to Arab women everywhere. The struggle for equality is far from over.

Kaima Ali has a weekly column in Al Araby's cultural and arts section

TL;DR - Main Points

  • Driving does not equal freedom
  • Jobs and equal pay are more important
  • Change has to be more than cosmetic
  • Equal opportunities is non-existant, being able to drive does not change this