by Sandy Myhre
Scroll through the pages of what the 24th June signifies throughout history and some significant battles over the centuries have been fought, won and lost. This year, the date is exceptional too, especially to the women of Saudi Arabia.
It was the day women in that country gained the right to drive independently. The granting of that concession has been a hard-won crusade contested over many years.
First, there are the winners, like racing driver Aseel Al Hamad. She celebrated by hopping into a Jaguar F-TYPE for a run around a race track as part of a global programme called the World Driving Day that invited both men and women to celebrate the enjoyment of driving.
Aseel Al Hamad holds a degree in interior design engineering from Prince Sultan University and has undertaken additional courses at the University of the Arts in London. She was her country’s first female board member of the Saudi Arabian Motor Federation and serves as the Saudi Arabian representative on the Women in Motorsport Commission for the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), the President of which is French rally driver, Michèle Mouton.
It’s an irony that Aseel Al Hamad has competed successfully in numerous countries around the world but, until the 24th June, had never driven in her own country.
“What better way to kick off World Driving Day than a lap of honour in my home country in a Jaguar F-TYPE, the ultimate car to roar around the track,” she said.
“I hope people around the world will share in our joy today by sharing their most memorable driving story using #worlddrivingday”
You Tube link – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wiTzb5Cli2Y
It perhaps comes as no surprise that one of the executives behind the promotion is Fiona Pargeter, Jaguar Customer Experience Director, who succinctly summed up the innovation as celebration.
“It’s easy to forget and take for granted the enjoyment of driving and just what a privilege it is to get behind the wheel of a car.”
Volkswagen were also quick off the mark to celebrate the win for women, although careful not to be seen as too feminist, maybe not to upset existing customers in Saudi Arabia who until now were all male. Volkswagen Middle East launched their #100SimpleJoysOfDriving’campaign which was, to quote the release, ‘created to celebrate the new drivers of Saudi Arabia’.
As with any combative situation (whether social or military) there are those who lost the fight. According to www.news.com.au some men in Saudi Arabia have expressed ‘quiet disapproval of a change they fear will undermine the kingdom’s deeply conservative Muslim identity.’
That’s hardly new and is why, surely, women took so long to be given the right to drive. But one Red Sea port worker quoted in the story said he had advised his three sons-in-law not to let their wives drive.
“It’s going to be very, very, difficult. God help us the first month,” he said sagely.
Yet, for women, it has always been difficult in the kingdom. The ban on driving was justified on numerous religious and cultural grounds, like the proposition that women driving would promote promiscuity and sin.
Then there was the learned cleric who suggested women were not smart enough to drive. Another cleric, Sheikh Saleh Al-Loheidan, suggested women risked damaging their child bearing properties, specifically ovaries, by sitting behind the wheel. His widely derided comments went viral and quite what he thought of women sitting in a chair at home or anywhere else wasn’t established or clarified.
In the nine months since King Salman announced sweeping reforms to overhaul the Saudi economy (including lifting the ban on women driving) nearly a quarter of Saudis polled in a recent survey were reportedly opposed to the lifting of that ban.
New Zealand motoring journalist, Jacqui Madelin, a former President of the NZ Motoring Writers Guild, has personal reasons to celebrate the motoring emancipation of Saudi women. As the correspondent for a large circulation weekend newspaper, she was invited to an overseas press event some years ago.
“Then I discovered it was in Saudi Arabia and I would not be allowed to drive, so I refused to attend unless I could drive.
“The company concerned looked up whether they could have me travel as ‘Mr’ but realised it would likely be obvious [I am not male] when I was there, so my invitation was withdrawn.”
She still wonders why a large, international car manufacturer would run a vehicle launch in a country in which only male writers could attend. And she still faces gender discrimination. From the head office of two European car companies (which operate in New Zealand and which she doesn’t name) that afford her the option of Mr or Mrs as a title.
“I’m not a married woman,” she says. “So, I’m down as Mister.”
So, have we progressed? The overt danger presented by women drivers is strangely reminiscent of the late nineteenth century when cars first appeared on the road. It wasn’t just women drivers who were the problem then but, in fact, all drivers.
In the UK the Locomotive Act 1865 required self-propelled vehicles to be led by a pedestrian waving a red flag or carrying a lantern to warn bystanders of the vehicle’s approach. That, though, wasn’t quite as rigorous as the Red Flag laws of the United States.
In 1894 in Pennsylvania the first reading of a bill was passed unanimously to require all motorists piloting a horseless carriage to immediately stop the vehicle when encountering livestock and ‘as rapidly as possible…disassemble the automobile and conceal the various components out of sight behind the nearby bushes until equestrian or livestock is sufficiently pacified’….
Thankfully, the bill didn’t become law because the governor of Pennsylvania used his executive veto.
Back in Saudi Arabia, what started as a protest in 2011 by Manal al-Sharif, has finally ended a decades-long battle. The then 32-year-old single mother posted videos of herself driving around Al Khobar in the Eastern Province. She was arrested in late May and jailed for nine days because of it.
Ten Saudi licences were issued on 24th June, all to women who have already obtained a driving licence abroad. Another 2,000 women look likely to join them in the days to come after passing driving courses now offered at all-female university campuses.
Saudi’s women motorists have won a significant victory in the right to drive and with King Salman issuing an order specifying women did not need permission from a male guardian for some other activities. Women’s rights groups in the country are now lobbying for the end of guardianship in Saudi society, using the social media hashtag #IAmMyOwnGuardian.