The First Thing My Mom Did After Leaving Saudi Arabia Was Learn to Drive

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King Salman of Saudi Arabia issued a historical decree today, lifting a long-held ban that has finally allowed Saudi women to drive for the first time ever. (Yes, in 2017.) Make no mistake, this is huge: Though it was never technically illegal for women to drive in Saudi Arabia, they’ve been unable to legally obtain driver’s licenses, and without the protection of this official document, were easy targets for fines, harassment, and even arrest.

“We refer to the negative consequences of not allowing women to drive vehicles and the positive aspects of allowing it to do so,” the decree noted, “taking into consideration the application of the necessary legal controls and adherence to them.”

Honestly, I can’t quite tell you how much this means to the women living in the region. I lived in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia when I was a kid, and although the memories are fuzzy now, I distinctly remember my mother watching the clock like a hawk every single day as the hour neared for my dad’s return from work. As soon as he would enter, a burst of freedom would fill the house and we would usually take off immediately, having been cooped up inside all day. Since it was illegal for my mother to legally drive (or even leave the house without a male relative), we waited impatiently until we could head to the Red seawall, eat corn on the cob from local vendors, and climb atop the gorgeous marble statues. That was our equivalent of going to the park back then.

I never realized just how difficult this must have been for my mom, but as soon as we immigrated to Chicago in the early 1980s, my father immediately taught my mother to drive and bought her a brand new blue station wagon. I remember the look of joy on her face whenever she grabbed her car keys and knowingly grinned at us to go for a joyride (that always happened to end with ice cream). To this day, she claims that she can drive for days without getting tired, and I attribute this to her captivity for the few years we spent in Saudi Arabia.

But although this is a huge leap forward for the women of the Saudi kingdom, it’s hard not to think about the fact that the first American woman received her driver’s license all the way back in 1900. So yes, this progress is good, but it also highlights just how far women in the region still have to go to achieve some of the same basic rights we enjoy — without even realizing — every single day here in the States.

For one, Saudi women still cannot walk outside the house with their heads uncovered, because the government interprets religious (and to a vast degree, cultural) customs with severity, thus making it illegal for women to leave the house with more than their hands or eyes visible. This means that when Saudi women eat out in public restaurants, they have to bring their fork inside their face veil to eat, since they can’t even risk exposing their face in public!

Forget traveling far distances — if a woman tries to eat at a restaurant without a man by her side, she most likely will be refused service altogether.
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They also can’t even open a bank account without the express permission of a legal male guardian (such as their father, brother, husband, or even their son). And while it’s hard to imagine here in America, segregation by gender still exists in Saudi Arabia, where women are not allowed to interact with men they are not related to. All government buildings, banks, offices, schools, and even most homes have separate entrances for men and women in an attempt to prohibit any encounters with the opposite sex.

Women also can’t travel alone without the permission of their male guardians. So as a Muslim woman who doesn’t even live in Saudi Arabia, I cannot visit the country without being escorted by a male guardian or being met at the airport by a male guardian. And forget traveling far distances — if a woman tries to eat at a restaurant without a man by her side, she most likely will be refused service altogether. (Yes — really.)

Even some of the smallest freedoms we enjoy every day are simply not possible for women in Saudi Arabia. Like trying on clothes in a fitting room, for example. (Yep, you read that correctly.) Just the idea of a woman disrobing in a public place like a mall store is apparently so titillating that it’s actually banned. So if a woman wants buy clothes, she crosses her fingers and hopes it will fit when she gets home.

Still, as someone who has lived in the region myself, I have to point out that much of the overzealousness of Saudi government’s restrictions on women stem from long-standing cultural traditions rather than religious ones. My own father was always a religious Muslim man, and as it turns out, he was also the first feminist I knew. When we immigrated to Chicago nearly 30 years ago now, it was simply because he wanted his three daughters to get the best education possible, regardless of their gender.

That said, I applaud Saudi Arabia for finally granting women a right they have long been fighting for. And let’s hope we can see even more progressive decrees emerging from the Saudi kingdom in the coming years.

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