I drove cars legally in the United States for 40 years before moving to Saudi Arabia. I got an "A" in my Driver's Ed class in high school (shout out to Coach Sharp!) and I have always passed my driver's tests on the first try. I have an excellent driving record. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, however, bans women from driving, although out in the sparsely populated areas, women are known to drive there. To my knowledge, it is the only country in the world where it is illegal for women to drive. The most common excuse given for why women are not allowed to drive here is that it's for their own safety and protection. Now this excuse of safety doesn't really refer to the dangers of having or causing accidents. What it actually refers to is the potential for women to have more freedom and to not be under the direct control of a man. The thinking is that a woman driver would have more of a chance to hook up with someone of the opposite sex if she wanted to, which is a big no-no in this country. The funny thing is that I have spoken to many Saudi women who drive outside this country, and they have all managed to avoid becoming sluts - which is what some Saudi men think of all women drivers elsewhere in the world. You can read a previous post I wrote about this subject not long ago.
Granted, the driving conditions here in Jeddah are horrendous. Just imagine all that testosterone gunning those engines in a land where only men are allowed behind the wheel! Traffic laws seem to be non-existent here, and if there ARE traffic laws, nobody follows them and no one visibly enforces them either.
But what really galls me is the fact that I - a responsible female driver with a proven track record of safety and skill and years of experience - am not allowed to drive here in Saudi Arabia, yet frequently I have seen children - specifically young boys - driving who are definitely not old enough to have a driver's license. I have tried to find out the legal driving age requirement here in Saudi Arabia, but that information is as elusive as the traffic laws. I've seen various accounts that range from 17 up to 25, and just about every age in between. All I do know is that many of the drivers I have seen here are nowhere close to approaching their 17th birthday, let alone 25.
One day I was crossing the street in a quiet residential section of town, and I was almost run over by a car driven by a boy who looked as though he couldn't have been a day over 10! These young boys drive, stretching and craning their necks in an effort to see over the steering wheel. Many of them have to sit on pillows. I don't know how they can possibly reach the gas pedal, or more importantly, the brake pedal! This is not something I see every day because I am not out and about every day, but it happens with enough frequency that I am not shocked any more when I see it - just angered that I am not allowed to drive here, yet these spoiled little brats CAN. As in many countries of the world, most boys here are raised to believe that they are superior to their sisters and are given special privileges just because they were born with a little extra appendage that girls don't have.
Even though the photos accompanying this post are of poor quality, hopefully you can see that there is a child - I'm guessing he's about eight years old - driving this big SUV on the busy streets of Jeddah AT NIGHT, during Ramadan, when traffic is especially heavy.
In the front passenger seat is a bearded grown man, probably his father, visible in the photo below.
It's hard to make out, but there are two other children in the back seat. None of the vehicle's occupants are wearing their seatbelts, of course. Most Saudis do not wear seatbelts as a rule, nor do they impress upon their children the importance of doing so.
I really resent the fact that I am not permitted to drive here in Saudi Arabia while young boys, who aren't even into double digits in age, can and do, without penalty or objection. I am NOT one of the many fortunate women here in this country who is provided with her own driver and vehicle. Consequently I am stuck at home much of the time with not much to do. My life has been reduced to accepting invitations only when my husband agrees to drive me, which he HATES to do, or when I'm lucky enough to be invited by one of my friends who can send her driver for me. My mobility here is severely restricted, and it is something I cannot get used to. To go from having my own car and the ability to drive where and when I wanted all my life to a country where I cannot is disheartening. Women who are caught driving in Saudi Arabia are usually hauled down to the police station, arrested, and can only be released to their male guardian (see corroborating news article).
To me this whole system makes no sense. Not allowing women to drive causes many hardships on a family, financial burdens if the family has to hire a driver, added stress on the man of the family to drive the women around, inconveniences for everyone, makes it difficult for women to get to and from work (so most women do not work here), and more. Women here in Saudi Arabia face many challenges and barriers created by the men which make it difficult for the women with desires for a more meaningful life to become more valued contributing members of this society. When men here say women cannot drive for their own protection, yet they turn around and permit little boys to get behind the wheel in busy traffic on the streets of Jeddah, putting everyone in their paths in harms way, there is no other word for it than "preposterous." The intended purpose behind not allowing women to drive here is totally flawed and unreasonable. It all boils down to a control issue, aimed at treating women like children and at keeping women at home.
For another related post about the problems created when women must hire drivers, please read a recent blog post over at Sand Gets in My Eyes.