While the world sat agog at and fascinated with the giant leap Saudi Arabia took in December 2015, by allowing women to participate in the civic polls, not only as voters but also as contestants, many queries and concerns raised their heads in my mind, since I have seen things in the Kingdom empirically.
After having stayed in Saudi Arabia since 2007, to be with my family, during all the holidays and vacations my government job could allow me, I saw, felt and experienced the Kingdom as a woman from behind my overtly feminine black flowy Abaya. Honestly speaking, it sounds like an overstatement, since I wore no face cover or crocheted eye patches, popularly used in Afghanistan, through which I had to peep out and see the outside world as a chequered place from a chequered perspective. Being in Jeddah, perhaps, the most cosmopolitan place that the Kingdom can be at this point in history, I could sometimes keep my head uncovered sinfully and feel the sea breeze in my hair in the corniche area.
Let me confess that my face was not behind anything. In fact I was not much behind anything at all, and especially not the wheels, and very lazily and happily so, since I did not have to do so many things like managing mundane chores, running errands, going to receive or drop anyone at the airport, or keeping my eyes open during long drives with the family. In fact in this confessional mode (I hope that the Saudi government does not press for my extradition and use my present babbling as admissible in the court for my conviction), I may also recount how I, once, stole a moment from the watchful eyes of omnipresent Saudi police and touched the forbidden fruit of the driving wheel in the city of Jeddah to experience a sudden rush of adrenalin in me, qualifying it as one of the most adventurous moments in my life.
Before I comment on the feminist suffragettes’ victory in Saudi Arabia, let me also confess that the Kingdom does look peaceful and equanimous on the surface, which a person like me hailing from the largest and somewhat chaotic democracy, India, finds a little disturbing. The Kingdom boasts of having one of the best road networks in the world. With gasoline literally cheaper than water and every man trying to be formula one driver on a daily basis, the roads are the best kind of recreation facility the Kingdom provides its citizens with.
Unexpectedly, there is not much of road rage to witness to make an Indian feel at home, despite the fact that almost every, invariably male, driver behaves like a wannabe Schumacher pressing and releasing inexhaustible gasoline and underexploited testosterone at the same time. Instead, when motors collide, one can witness innocent greetings/cheeks-pecking taking place between the drivers of the crashing cars (which appears homoerotic to those belonging to a more diverse world). The roads also double as venues for a voluntary, involuntary, romantic or commercial dating service. Opportunities come to you in leaps and bounds, if you are a female and are in habit of intently gazing out the window of an unalterably passenger seat, to make sure that your driver is taking you in the right direction.
Yes, you guessed it right. It is coming straight from the horse’s mouth. Believe me, if anyone shows different number of fingers at different times, he is neither asking for direction, nor is he trying to warn you about traffic jam or any other mishap, he is simply rendering a selfless service of exchanging his contact number with you for a liaison, which may be romantic or commercial or both, to be established later in the evening when the phones go abuzz with the emotionally undernourished hearts busy connecting with each other through the gossamer of mobile networks. It is your problem, if, instead of feeling grateful, you feel exasperated, and threatened for being paid such unsolicited attention.
Coming back to the recent civic polls, I would like to express my excitement at the fact that ‘God’s very own Kingdom’ gave its women a chance, not only to vote, but also to contest in the elections to lead the civic bodies with their leadership acumen. It sounds like a big achievement for the Saudi feminists and egalitarians. My question basically is, if the Kingdom people find women capable of running business, municipal governance, teaching, practicing medicine and performing surgery et al: activities, which involve mental acuity, rational thinking, power of concentration, managerial skills, and leadership qualities, why they can’t let women sit behind the wheels and steer automobiles.
Well, apart from the vehemently argued point made by some awe-striking God-chosen cleric that driving damages ovaries, there are many other hair and logic-splitting arguments available. For example, the argument that, in their version of Islam, women are not allowed to go out, if not escorted by a close male relative; however a stranger driving her is fine. Or, if women are allowed to drive, it means the number of vehicles on the road will double. (I wonder why the Delhi CM cannot learn from the Kingdom traffic rules and instead of odd-even alternating to drive, he can have either of the accepted genders driving on the roads. It will also minimize sexual harassment cases).
Moreover, women driving in the Kingdom means unemployment for those sons of the soil and South Asian expatriates who earn their livelihood as taxi drivers. In the opinion of a South Asian taxi-driver working in KSA, driving a taxi is taken as a coveted job by some natives, since it creates a legitimate opportunity to establish social contact cutting across the gender barrier. By the way, it would be apt to recall the ethological urban legend which says that men in the Kingdom are born with driving skills just the way otters and many other animals know how to swim since the time of their birth.
I wonder if Salma bint Hizab Al-Oteibi, the first elected female politician in the Kingdom knows how to drive. I am sure, even if she does, she has been wise enough not to give it a shot in the Kingdom, or she could have been denied the right to run for office, for taking the law in her hands. Just the way Loujain Hathloul did and lost her chance to contest in the elections. It is definitely an either-or situation.
To cut a long story short, let me say that despite their inability to campaign for lack of funds, or freedom to have a direct contact with the electorate, and the pre-existing restriction on their movement, Saudi women have ultimately been elected in a somewhat democratic way. Doesn’t it, in an uncanny way, say that people in the Kingdom are more ready than they are themselves aware of, for a change in which women may have a big part to play and steer the Kingdom into the path of global respectability? I am sure that there are those who care, if not everyone and all.
Photo Credit- Joelle Hatem (Flickr)