I support jailed Saudi Manal Al Sharif’s right to drive. I support her right to join the men on the roads in her country, a country that has one of the highest car accident fatalities in the world, like most of the countries in the region.
See, having spent big chunks of my life in the Middle East, I most importantly support Manal’s right to drive well—to stop at traffic lights, to use her turn signal, to look both ways, to wear her seat belt, move a speed lower than your body temprature, to remove her child from the dashboard, and tell the other kid hanging half way out the window to sit back in his car seat. This I wish for all the male and female drivers in the Middle East.
Driving means respect for the lives of your fellow human beings with whom you are sharing the roads, and I don’t see a lot of that from my steering wheel. It’s why I sometimes envy the women here who are only allowed to have drivers. They don’t have to grind their teeth while someone makes a U-turn out of the far right lane, they don’t have to patrol narrow streets looking for a place to triple park their car, they don’t have to drown out hundreds of randomly honking horns. Whenever they need to go somewhere, they just call their driver and he drops them right at the door. While the driver is negotiating the roads, a woman can make her phone calls, grade papers, and listen to her iPod, take a nap, answer her e-mails. Of course, some people do all this while driving, too, further making me wish I had a driver.
For some women, like me, a driver is s a luxury, for others a form of subjugation. However, living without luxuries is easer for most—but not all–women than living under someone else’s control.
I too remember when driving was my form of emancipation. I turned 16 and just like every American-born 16-year old, the first thing I wanted to do was get what I was entitled to: a drivers license. The only problem was we were living in Beirut. That meant no testing center for eager American teenagers. However, I wasn’t about to let a license get in the way of my right to drive. We were in the middle of war, I explained to my mother, so who really cared about licenses. I figured the soldiers and the militias patrolling the roads wouldn’t be interested in my legality as a driver so much as what I might possibly have hidden in the trunk. My incessant droning on about this, with the support of my brother, who at 15, was little Datsun on the Corniche one Sunday morning and tossed the keys at me. “You can go up to the Rouche and back,” she told me. “That’s it?” I complained.
But in that short drive, I skidded to avoid a car going the wrong way and forced my way into the other lane. Actually, it wasn’t another lane so much as a funeral procession, and I was right behind the hearse of a militiaman whose people didn’t take to kindly to my nouveau driving. After my mother negotiated us out of the situation, explaining that I had too many American notions about being 16 in my head, she took her place behind the driver’s wheel and said, “You think driving is some kind of way to get your entire family killed?” my mother shouted. “This is not a game.”
Middle East roads are stressful, requiring vigilance and patience. Most women who have fought hard for their right to drive did so with vigilance and patience. I hope they remember that on the road, along with all the others, male and female, behind the wheel.
People should also remember that driving isn’t just a right. For all its stresses, it is also a privilege. I remember a well-intentioned European asking a boy from Gaza if his mother drove. “No,” he said. “That’s a shame,” the lady said, her feminist indignation not registering with the boy. “Yes, imagine one day if I could make enough money to buy my parents a car,” he answered. Many women here—clerks, maids, nursing assistants–must say that, too, as they stand in the 120 degree weather, often more than twice a day, hoping that an empty and affordable cab will eventually stop to take them to their jobs.