It’s something most of us do without thinking. We walk up to the driver’s side of the car, open the door and get settled in and ready to go. But what if you couldn’t take the wheel? What if being a woman meant you couldn’t just pick up and drive off?
That is the reality for women in Saudi Arabia, the world’s only country with an enforced ban for women drivers. The Gulf kingdom has no official law against a woman behind the wheel, but much of the conservative society adheres to a religious edict that prevents women from sitting in the driver’s seat.
Now, in the midst of the so-called “Arab Spring,” some women in the country are challenging the edict by encouraging others to take the wheel. Starting the Facebook group, “I will drive starting June 17,” Manal al-Sharif has mobilized 11,500 Saudi women against the ban so far. It is a remarkable number, given that many Saudi men have already threatened to publicly whip any woman caught driving.
Arrested this weekend for posting a YouTube video showing herself driving in her home town, al-Sharif was later freed when women in her hometown took to the streets in protest. A 32-year-old computer security consultant, al-Sharif hardly fits the mold of the popular image of the repressed Saudi women. Women now are more educated than they have ever been in the country’s history. Since 2005, the current monarch King Abdullah has allowed co-ed universities and even appointed the country’s first female minister. But still, for thousands of women, driving remains a vital step towards personal empowerment.
In a culture that prevents women from travelling abroad without authorization from a male guardian, keeps them from voting in the municipal elections that affect their local communities or forces them to publicly covered from head to toe- driving is a freedom. Driving means no longer needing a male relative to take you to run an errand or waiting for your teenage son to be old enough to take you around. For Saudi women, taking the wheel- though mundane- is paramount to taking control.
For many women in America, the idea of a woman being unable to sit in the driver’s seat seems, well, foreign. Seeing a woman behind the wheel is not newsworthy- it is barely noteworthy. And yet, the underlying need expressed by these Saudi women- the need for control- is one that any woman can understand.
I think it behooves us as women with many freedoms to never take for granted our rights. The ability to drive is less about getting from point A to point B as it is to be able to see the open road. With our paths open and waiting for us to tread forward, in our lives many of us hold back. Women with every right to proceed to our goals, we tremble at the challenge instead. Because when control is not restricted, taking it can be more terrifying than letting it go.
Today, choose to be bold enough to take control of your life and wise enough to not take that power for granted.