Saudi Female Drivers 30.09.17
They're three words I thought I'd never use, but this week in the oil rich Kingdom, Saudi female drivers were given the green light to drive in their own country. Not all will want to, of course, just like in the West, and it's also worth noting another barrier, that the Kingdom is a macho-fuelled, computer-game simulation of a place to navigate by car.
I know, from having lived there. From 2011 to 2015, I experienced first as passenger then as driver the tail-gating, light-flashing fury of the great repressed; there's nothing in the Quran about driving like an arsehole, and God, don't they exploit it in cities like Riyadh and Jeddah. Favourite memory? Perhaps it's of the pre-pubescent children driving foot-down, slaloming, while texting to a friend, and coming right up to your bumper at 120 kph, beeping you with an indignant outrage to get out of the way. If you didn't, they'd find a way to get in front of you eventually, and then they'd put the breaks on, sometimes slam it on, just to scare you. Don't fuck with me or I'll kill you, Inshallah.
I often wondered what would happen if Saudi women were allowed to drive. Would the men be offended by a female over-taking? Would they put the foot down, even on a bend, or bump against the woman's car, to remind them who's in charge? Honour is so much more valuable than life in the land where It's Written, where life indeed is almost as cheap as petrol.
Of course, one reason why so many boys drive in Saudi Arabia is the prohibition on women driving. Now that's gone, I hope the highway police will do the decent thing and police the roads and highways, rather than just focus on the wreckage of the accidents that occur from their neglect.
There are bigger implications, too, for the sexes. Women, at a stroke, will get more independence, assuming they don't need a family chaperone when they drive. In a land of scarcely any public transport or pedestrianization, your ability to travel by car is no extravagance. Perhaps men and women will find it easier to meet each other – this has been a fear of the clerics, I suspect – and in turn, a better understanding will grow between both sides of a pretty substantial gender divide.
I wonder too about the clerics, those like Saad Al Hijri who last week proclaimed Saudi women's brains much tinier than men's, which therefore precluded women from driving. I wonder what Saad Al Hijri will think if he's ever collected in a taxi, and the driver is a woman.
The clerics and religious police aside, I should emphasize I knew people who lived happily in Saudi Arabia, Muslims and non-Muslims – many that I worked with who are still there now, and will continue living there happily for a long time after I've left Edinburgh. The salaries are good in Saudi Arabia, but comfortable too are the compound lives of Westerners, including compound pool and barbecues and satellite TV, the free gym and the convenience of the compound shop, the compound nursery and tennis court, and meanwhile the children are free to roam around the compound's handful of streets. You have your community of friends, your car, your desert trips, you have Dubai and Bahrain for weekend breaks. I felt I was slowly dying there, but for many men and women, Saudi and non-Saudi alike, it's got everything you need, if your needs can be met within compound walls.Outside those walls, though, a country will clearly go through changes. The de-mystification of women begins apace, and perhaps in turn, the myth of male superiority into decline, a welcome de-pressurizing of false expectations for men and women.