I walked into my new class and looked at all of the smiling faces, anxiously waiting for me to teach. I introduced myself and had them introduce themselves. After the formalities, I asked what they would like to discuss.
One student started by asking how I liked Riyadh. I explained that I liked the peace and quiet of the city, having to never hear sirens, no blaring music at the malls, being treated with respect and … not having to drive.
I had just opened the proverbial can of worms. The class erupted, and there were shouts of protest and incredulous responses. How could I not want to drive? I explained that I had been driving all of my adult life, and it was a relief to not do so. These women, however, wanted to drive, and the sooner the better. I could not believe that they were not enjoying the luxury of being driven; a luxury most American women would give their eyetooth to have. How could it not be wonderful to have a driver? Someone to pick you up and drop you off at your whim? Someone to help with your packages and navigate the snarling traffic? Not all was as it seemed.
Because of the passionate response I received, I decided to divide the 10 students into groups. One group was to argue the benefits of driving, and one group the downside of driving.
The group in favor of driving argued that the drivers were from other countries, and wanted to make a lot of money very quickly. They frequently demanded short hours, long pay, and private living quarters. If a private driver was not available, they would go to their father or brother, who were frequently too tired, too busy, or just too preoccupied to drive them. The alternative? Take a taxi, where you could be, at best, sexually harassed, or at worst, raped and left by the side of the road. Not really an alternative. So, you wait, and you wait until someone is available or willing to drive you.
But what about those women with no husband, no brother, and few financial resources? The bulk of their money, earned or left to them by a deceased husband, went to unscrupulous taxi drivers, or expensive private drivers. Kind of like the financial toll that daycare can sometimes make on women in the U.S. After paying for a driver, little is left for other essentials, and nothing is left for even minor luxuries.
To be able to drive themselves would be the simplest and most efficient solution for all involved. Surprisingly, all of the women in the class had been taught to drive by their fathers.
The group who argued against driving cited tradition, and the tradition is a cultural one. They also argued that they were treated like queens by their men and respected by other men and women who hold tradition in high regard. They also argued that they did not know how to change a tire or maintain a car, and what would happen to the niquab, hijab and abaya? They would have to shed them, or shorten them and be exposed to the leering eyes of men. For this group of believers, culture and tradition would come tumbling down.
In the end, all of the women protested that there is nothing in the Quran to prevent them from driving. They wanted the responsibility of having a car. They wanted the choices, the freedom, and the fun that comes with getting behind the wheel of a car. And while my time may largely be over, for them, the time and the beginning is now.