By Lubna Hussain
I was at a dinner the other night in honour of a former regional governor. The host, one of the country’s leading intellectuals, doesn’t believe in the concept of a free meal. As we sat at the table he interrupted the customary conversation with an ominous request.
“As a Saudi Arabian woman I would like you to highlight to our friend what progress you think has been made in terms of the women of this country and what changes you would personally like to see.”
The table fell silent. There were no other Saudi women present so I gulped hard and momentarily debated whether or not to open my mouth.
“Umm,” I began trying to buy time, “there has been progress.” I noticed all the men nodding agreeably with glances of satisfaction being exchanged. “But not enough,”
“What do you mean?” asked a prominent businessman. “There has been a lot of progress made!”
“Look,” I responded realizing that the rest of my compatriots were preparing to attack, “I suppose there has been some made. But honestly, I still feel pretty disillusioned with what has not yet been done.”
“What do you want?” he asked rhetorically.
“Oh so many things!” I replied vaguely wondering whether it was a good idea to narrate my wish list or not. He stared at me in anticipation giving me the incentive to continue.
“I want more than anything else to be respected as a sane adult and be given the right to make decisions about my life that I am the only one qualified to make.”
Before he could interject, I focused my gaze on the ex governor who was seated opposite me and addressed my grievances to him.
“I find it more than demeaning to have to seek the permission of a male guardian every time I leave the country. My situation is unusual, granted, as I don’t have any legal guardian here but even my father objects to this stricture. He thinks it’s ridiculous that I can be deemed responsible enough to run a bureau for a major US network, but I have to get him to sign on a bit of paper every time I have to travel,” I complained.
“Well,” replied the businessman seizing the opportunity, “this is part of our tradition.”
“I am not against tradition,” I replied, “but I do think that if a tradition is responsible for holding back 50% of society then that so-called tradition should surely be subject to revision.”
The guest of honour listened intently.
“I understand your difficulty,” he empathized, “but don’t you feel that things are moving forward?”
“It seems the subject of women driving is making ground,” proffered our host. “I think that this issue will be resolved soon.”
“This issue has to be treated carefully,” cautioned the businessman.
“What do you mean “carefully”?” I interrupted.
“The leadership has to deal with this sensitively. There are many people against driving here and this has to be respected.”
“And what about those who want to drive?” I asked suppressing my fury and frustration. “Don’t they deserve to be respected? It’s not about driving or tradition. It’s about personal choice and the right to have that choice respected as long as it is not against Islam. We all know that it has nothing to do with religion! Muslim women have commanded armies and fought in military campaigns and if it was so alien to tradition then why would there be bedouin women, the very personification of tradition, driving across the dunes in Land Cruisers?”
“Most of the women in this country are not ready for this,” said the businessman.
“So what?” I replied. “Isn’t it about time that we let the women decide what they want? When are the men of this country going to quit telling us when we are ready?”
“I am not trying to attack you,” retorted the businessman. “This is a very sensitive issue that could create division between family members. I have several sisters some of whom don’t want to drive and others who may well want to. Don’t you see the potential problems that could arise within a single household?”
To be honest I didn’t but had already come across as an opinionated contentious pseudo-liberated threat to the equilibrium of the evening so judiciously decided not to contest his assertion.
“Might I remind you,” I said focusing on the more reasonable gentleman in front of me, “that if our friend’s concerns had been of such significance then we would not have had women’s education in this country. That was an extremely courageous step and one taken by the leadership for the benefit of society. Naturally all change is greeted by resistance, but that doesn’t mean that you can resist change.”
“You are right,” agreed the guest of honour, “and there will be change very soon.”
Personally I would never drive here, even if the ban was lifted, because I believe that there are enough maniacs on the road. However, like with everything else, what I want and do not want should not infringe upon the rights and choices of others. To drive or not to drive: that is not the question. To choose or not to choose: that is!