Saudi Women and the Driving Ban: Every Woman in a Gilded Cage

Posted on October 29, 2013


There is no legal ban.  There is no religious ban.  But Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that refuses to issue driver’s licenses to women.  Last Saturday, women once again got behind the wheel in protest.

During my initial training as a young officer, there was a Saudi officer in one of my courses.  One day I saw him walking to class, and gave him a ride.  It occurred to me that this might be odd for him, and I asked about it.  “No, it is not strange,” he replied.  “We know that American women drive, it is not a surprise.  But in Saudi Arabia, every woman is a princess!  She does not need to drive.  Anything she needs, she has only to ask for; anywhere she needs to go, her husband will take her.”  We talked at length about this; he could not, or would not, see that this was actually very confining from my point of view.

Later, I would have the chance to see this in action for myself.

When I was in Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War, there was a lot of internal controversy over whether US military women should drive or not.  At first, my unit’s leaders (and many other US military leaders) wanted to avoid offending our Saudi “hosts,” and issued directives barring women from driving during the deployment.  Alas for them, it instantly became obvious that without women drivers, our units would be immobilized.  Women made up too large a percentage of the total number of trained drivers to simply bar them from their duties; no women drivers meant an overall driver shortage.  Another directive, more half-hearted due to the recognition that it made no sense, was issued:  women should only drive with a man accompanying them.  Well, that did not address the requirements to have more than one licensed driver on hand, and an alert “shotgun” in the passenger seat.  No, women were going to have to just do the jobs that they were trained for (shocker, I know), and that included driving.

So we drove the military vehicles, but then we were initially barred from driving the civilian vehicles that had been purchased to augment our administrative mobility.  Well, that soon fell by the wayside, too.  On any deployment, and certainly once war has erupted, things are moving too fast and unexpectedly to waste trained soldiers on such silliness.  A soldier is a soldier, and that was that.

Bless King Fahd.  To deal with this and a host of related gender issues, he simply – quietly – declared us “honorary men” for the duration.  There was no official proclamation as such and you won’t find it on any document; our hosts were just given to understand that US military women would do their jobs as usual and were not to be interfered with.

Saudi women had fought the driving ban before, but I am certain that seeing unveiled, armed US women driving around had an impact on them.  They stared at us from behind their veils, even more intensely and curiously than the men did.  Later, I had the opportunity to get acquainted with several Saudi women, and the conversations were interesting.  One woman, Aisha, asked me and my female sergeant:  “How did you get here?”  “We drove,” we replied.  “Good for you!”  she exclaimed.  Another woman, Wafa, had a chauffeur who drove her and her friends wherever they needed to go.  I often wondered about this, because such an arrangement technically violates the rule against women being in the company of unrelated men.

Interestingly, Wafa’s situation (a very common one) provides exactly one of the key arguments that Saudi women are citing in their most recent protests against the female driving ban.  While clerics and conservatives claim that women driving themselves will somehow result in exposing them to inappropriate contact with unrelated men – say, in case of an accident – the practice of hiring chauffeurs is longstanding and widespread, and that routinely exposes many women to repeated contact with unrelated men.

It makes no sense.  As Ben Hubbard reports for the New York Times,

“We are looking for a normal way of life,” Madiha al-Ajroush, 60, a psychologist, said in an interview in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, “for me to get into my car and do something as small as get myself a cappuccino or something as grand as taking my child to the emergency room.”

As Mohammed Jamjoom explains on CNN, the ban on women driving is just the tip of the iceberg, merely one of the most visible indications of a much bigger issue:  women have no legal control over their own lives.  Essentially, they are minors their whole lives.  First they depend on their fathers; then their husbands; in widowhood, their sons.  Their male relatives are the ones who manage property, medical decisions, make travel arrangements, accompany the women on any but the most routine, local excursions.  Women are eternal minors, eternally dependent.

Long ago at that military course, I had asked my Saudi colleague: what happens if a woman has no sons, no brothers, and her husband is dead?  “Don’t worry,” he said.  “She will have a male relative.  Someone will take care of her.”

The thing is, women just might want to take care of themselves.