x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

The day an emergency almost drove me to defy Saudi ban

Now Saudi men, too, are starting to speak up in favour of letting women drive in the kingdom. Our columnist recalls the time the rule against female drivers left her mother frantic with worry in a medical emergency.

The unthinkable is happening in Saudi Arabia. No, not the fact that Saudi women are once again demanding the right to drive. They have been doing that for as long as I can remember. Now, however, there are hundreds of Saudi men joining them in signing their full names on petitions and letters addressed to King Abdullah.

"I want them to know exactly who is signing this, I am not scared," said a friend who, until this week, had been indifferent to the driving ban. She prefers being a passenger, and not worrying about the worsening parking situation in Jeddah and Riyadh. But now she signed on, something I know is out of character.

"There is safety in numbers. They won't arrests thousands of Saudis, will they?" she said.

It all began when Manal al Sherif, with a little help from her friends, launched a campaign, "I will drive my car myself", and called on women to drive on June 17.

Ms Sherif was detained, released, and then rearrested this week. Another woman was also caught driving in Qassim.

My friend was trying to persuade me to sign a petition calling for the release of Ms al Sherif, who had uploaded a YouTube video of herself driving in Khobar, in the eastern province of Saudi Arabia, where she made a case for the right to drive.

"Not everyone can afford a driver," Ms al Sherif said. It costs at least a Dh1,000 a month and is a burden many families can't afford.

One of her comments struck a chord with me personally. "God forbid. What if the husband driving has a heart attack, and there is no one around and she is not allowed to drive?" she asked in the video.

Most women have faced emergencies where there has not been a man around to assume driving duties.

In my case, it happened when my baby brother was having breathing difficulties at our residential compound in Jeddah.

It was a Friday, a weekend, and my father was on a business trip. This was before the mobile phone age and the on-call doctor at our regular clinic was nowhere to be found. I can't describe the panic that overcame my mother as she clutched my brother, and ran from door to door trying to find a male neighbour at a time of day when most were out. That image haunts me to this day.

I was a teenager, and like many of my friends, had secretly tried my hand at the wheel. But I wasn't good, and I knew that. The decision was made for me, as my mother thrust the car keys into my hand and said: "Drive."

We were at the gate of the compound when we recognised a couple driving in. Without even asking, my mother jumped out of our car and into theirs with the baby, leaving me, and my little sister in the back, confused over what was happening.

This was my introduction to what every other Saudi woman must feel like when stuck in an emergency and she is not allowed to drive: helpless and fearful of what might happen if she is caught.

From what is being reported, it seems that there is technically nothing in writing regarding what punishments women face if caught driving. It does not come under the Islamic authority or morality police, as no Islamic law has been broken. It will be interesting to see what line the police pursue if more women are caught.

The Saudis and the world will be watching closely what happens to Ms al Sherif. Support groups are popping up on Facebook, with over 3,000 joining "Teach me how to drive so I can protect myself", a page inspired by Manal's campaign.

Another group, "I'll definitely protect a female driver on June 17", has more than 950 men "liking" the page, promising to use their eqal (headgear) or even their neaal (sandals) to confront anyone who stops women from driving.

Every time I go to Saudi Arabia, I am reminded of the privilege of driving. I feel too old to have to wait for my father or the driver to take me out.

Thanks to the courage of Saudi men and women, we can hope this will change soon.

And yes, I did sign the petition.

rghazal@thenational.ae