I bet women around the world who have the power of the car key remembered for a moment exactly how they learned to drive when they read about the women in Saudi Arabia who protested the country’s longstanding ban against women driving by taking the wheel in some of its major cities.
I’m sorry I didn’t take part in an effort to show solidarity for my Saudi sisters, if indeed one had been organized. If American women had shown their support by refusing to drive for even a single day, our economy would have come to a halt. Might we have helped Saudi women gain the right to drive if we had supported their efforts? According to news reports, the women’s protest fizzled; those who courageously got behind the wheel on June 17 were simply sent home and admonished not to do it again. I hope they will not be deterred to try again in the future.
The Saudi women’s plight is important to me. Not only because there is significance in having control over a car key, but because of the gender and sexual aspects of this struggle. Supporters of the ban, many of whom are clerics, argue that allowing women to drive “would lead to public mingling of the sexes.” Ban opponents respond by saying that “the clerics [put] everything into a sexual context.”
I cannot understand why the ban’s supporters think that women driving cars in cities could cause an increase in men’s sexual drive. It boggles my mind to think that men seeing women veiled and sitting at the wheel— rather than in the backseat, driven by male chauffeurs—will raise their sexual temperature. How frightened these men must be about their ability to control their own sexual desires.
Of course, driving the streets and then walking them would vest independence in women, and perhaps this is the fear of those who want them relegated to the backseat. Author Farzaneh Milani in her Times op-ed “Saudi Arabia’s Freedom Riders” writes, “A woman who trespasses [in the street] is … regarded as a sinful street-walker.” Now we’re getting to the root of the problem.
The ban is much more about women’s identity and independence. Saudi women aren’t asking for the moon here: they’re simply asking for the right to drive to the market or to see their friends, or perhaps to pick up their children at school. They’re asking the all-male monarchy for a small helping of personal power.
Their plight brings back memories of my father, who so understood the power of driving that he suggested I learn to drive on our farm truck so I could get a license at age 16. (New Jersey law gave young people the chance to drive before 17, ostensibly to be able to help on the farm.) My father didn’t expect me to help out on the farm, but he inherently understood that driving would give me the independence and confidence I needed to find my place in what was essentially a man’s world in 1946.
The Saudi women’s protest made me realize that my father was a feminist. He died 41 years ago, and I never once heard him use the “F” word, but I see him as a feminist more clearly now, because, let’s face it, driving a car conveys a certain degree of power and freedom.
My father only had two daughters, and I was his eldest. I grew up at a time when having a son was prized more than having a daughter. Never once did I ever hear him say that he wished he had had a son. I always thought that he treated me exactly as he would have had I been a boy. I sensed this very early on in my life when I was learning to ride a pony.
My pony—whose name was Prudence and did not quite live up to her name—enjoyed bucking me off her back. Every time she did, my father patiently explained that I had to get back on and let her know who was in charge. He was always kind to me, but he was determined that I learn to conquer my fears about riding—a template for how he hoped I would handle other difficult situations in life. (When the going gets tough, I think of this incident.)
He also took me hunting on horseback when I was young, to toughen me up mentally and physically. I remember being cold and sometimes frightened as I followed behind him, jumping difficult fences. But his confidence in my ability to follow adult riders gave me confidence in my ability to face jumps, or difficult situations, later in life.
It was only a small step from jumping high fences to driving the large farm truck. The challenge was shifting gears and learning to park. If my father had waited until I reached 17, I probably would have taken my driving test on a car with an automatic gear system and wouldn’t have learned to shift. I was always proud that I learned this. To my father, the car key was a metaphor for helping me find my own place in my own kingdom—and wishing me Godspeed as I did.