Give women the vote and what outrageous thing happens next? In Saudi Arabia, they start demanding the keys to the car.
Thus a relative handful of brave Saudi women will slip behind the wheel Saturday for a “Day of Female Driving.” Saudi Arabia is the only nation that bars women from driving. Not that there’s an actual law against them doing so. But the government won’t issue them licenses.
There are, however, women with licenses obtained in other countries; they will be the driving force, if you will, of the Saturday demonstration. They haven’t been driving up to now because of overwhelming traditional and cultural pressure. It simply hasn’t been done.
It is unknown how the government will react to Saturday’s protest. King Abdullah, who in 2011 granted women the right to vote (it takes effect in time for the 2015 voting cycle) has said that he expected that women would one day drive in Saudi Arabia. Saudi authorities warned that police would be cracking down on anyone making trouble Saturday, but it was unclear whether that referred to the women drivers or the conservatives who oppose their efforts and intend to launch counter-protests.
Make no mistake, this is an act of courage, even if it’s one that doesn’t get women past first gear in their efforts to gain basic rights that are taken for granted almost everywhere in the developed world. People in the West tend to bemoan the face veils and body-hiding robes that most Saudi women must wear in public, but many of the goals at the top of the women’s agenda are more basic.
What they want are jobs and a measure of self-determination. Their ability to work is limited, and because of rules about keeping unrelated men and women separate, they usually must work for companies that provide women-only work spaces. They wait on different lines at fast-food restaurants and must be served in separate, often less desirable, quarters in restaurants, banks and other public settings. In order to have certain medical procedures or to leave the country, they need the permission of their husbands or a male guardian.
Of all the rights denied to Saudi women, the right to drive might not be the most socially or economically important — although the ability to work in Saudi Arabia, where public transit is notoriously poor, is related to the ability to get to one’s job. But there is potent symbolism in women steering their own drive toward a possibly less restrictive future.