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One of the perils of being a woman is that as soon as you back out of your garage, you become the target and the personification of a patronizing euphemism -- the female driver.
It doesn’t matter how brilliant you are at maximizing mileage, how sound your defensive driving is, how careful you are to observe all the traffic niceties, the fact that you are behind the wheel, going places on your own steam, immediately qualifies you for a shake of the head or a smirk should you just delay a few cars behind you while waiting for a safe moment to proceed at U-turn slot.
Being a lady driver also brands you as an easy mark for predators at car shops who think, just because you have boobs, you must be one, too, and will try to sell you overpriced goods or hoodwink you into paying for needless repair -- service with a leer. While these are to be endured, at least we who live here can drive ourselves where we want to go.
I use the verb “can” by design to connote the mechanical ability which is inherent in all functioning human beings regardless of gender. Believe it or not, that which we take for granted -- the chance to operate a car by ourselves -- isn’t so in other places where driving isn’t a “can” but is an “allowed to.”
In other words, driving isn’t a right but a privilege for which women are unsuited. In Saudi Arabia, sisters who drive themselves are arrested and made to sign an undertaking never to drive again, part of an official policy that forces women to have to rely on male members of the family or hire chauffeurs if they want to get around.
Last Wednesday, women petitioned King Abdullah to be allowed to drive vehicles; Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where its female citizens are not allowed to drive.
A woman driving herself is an automotive metaphor for women’s place in the world -- we no longer are mere passengers who can only get to where we want with the aid of a driver, typically male. A car and a driver’s license are universal tokens of our emancipation and we have long since ceased to consider them a big deal, as has the rest of the world. Men may begrudge us use of the streets but they accept us as facts of life and frankly, many of them are grateful at not having to chauffeur us around. And we’ve driven ourselves to many outstanding places: to work, to university, to public office and the highway seems endless from where we sit.
There are many reasons why women should be allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia; I wouldn’t be surprised to learn if the ban applies as stringently to foreign women as they do to the locals. Obviously, there is the human rights component of equality between the genders, but that point is too well-conceded for there to be much argument. Then there are the scenarios involving -- family, medical, practical, etc. -- which most everyone will concede justifies driving by women, but being asked to “justify” driving oneself is an act of debasement and I refuse to be drawn into that. To the arguments, I will add two of my own, involving mundane considerations.
The first is financial. A woman in Saudi Arabia who does not have male relatives to drive for her will have to retain a chauffeur if she wants to, say, go to the grocery. To do that, she will have to pay someone. The money that she will use to pay her driver is money that could have been used, say, to pay for tuition, food, rent, clothes, medicine or other necessities of life. If her budget does not allow her a driver, then she stays where she is. It’s that or walk. A man will not have to confront this choice. He will not have to incur an additional expense unlike a woman; she doesn’t even have the option of keeping the money for investing or even the simple act of saving it in a bank.
The second is occupational. Imposing a ban on women drivers disqualifies them from employment for which they would otherwise be qualified. The math is simple: the loss of employment equals loss of income, and the loss of income spells want or disaster for many families. There is no simpler way to put it.
Saudi Arabia seems so far away and so alien a place that you may even wonder why I’m raising a stink about it. Consider, though, the thousands of our women kababayans struggling to make a living there and perhaps you’ll begin to understand why.