It was six months into my time in Saudi Arabia, and life was a little less difficult than when I arrived.
I was used to dressing like Harry Potter. I had adjusted to the segregation, the heat, the dust, even the creepy fruit vendor telling me that nobody eats candy when it’s not been in the wrapper – ergo, cover the fuck up.
I knew I’d made progress one day when my taxi – which had no seat belts and smelt like a backed-up, stagnant sewer on a hot, tropical day – drove past an area famous for beheadings. The driver looked at me in the rear view mirror with a big grin full of saliva and not so many teeth, licked his lips and said “Chop Chop!”. Now, the old me would have tried to jumped free from that taxi immediately, with visions of being skinned alive by Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs. But the new me simply ignored him, covered my face with my headscarf, and blocked it all out. To be fair, there were plenty of other days where I’d be sunbathing by the pool, sipping coffee in my favourite French restaurant, or shopping in an air-conditioned mall. It wasn’t exactly the life of a war correspondent in Afghanistan or a field worker in Sierra Leone. I was an English teacher living in Riyadh. It was a bit shit sometimes, but not that shit.
However, there was one thing that constantly caused me acute distress, and that was the monthly student presentations.
I’d sat through literally everything from rabbit cage designs, to the benefits of breathing, to the imminent zombie apocalypse, to the story of Saddam Hussein’s life from his dog’s perspective. The final straw was listening to one girl talk about how special her best friend was, which would have been fine except…
“She is always in my fart. My fart beats to the sound of her beautiful voice and every time I feel my fart, I think of her. She is and will always be in my fart.”
“It’s HEART sweetie – HEART.”
It was time to change things around so I could start avoiding presentation time. My great idea was to have a debate instead, and what better subject to discuss with Saudi women than the driving ban – a topic specifically chosen by the girls in my high level class.
‘Okay girls, those of you who are for the notion that women should be allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, sit on the left of the room. Those who don’t know, please sit in the middle and those who are against the idea, please sit on the right.’
I finished my instructions and waited. Nobody moved.
‘Come on, ‘ I pleaded. ‘We only have 55 minutes. Let’s get moving!’
The girls got up and hesitantly took their places, all except Latifah and Ayah, who were already happily seated on the left. It was a minute before I looked up and realised that almost everybody had moved to the middle.
‘Ladies! This is a debate and I really don’t want you all to be sitting on the fence on this subject. This is your chance to give an opinion on women’s rights in this country and make your voice heard, even if it’s just in the classroom.’
Ghada looked around in confusion.
‘There is no fence here teacher,’ she said, eyes wide with confusion.
‘I don’t mean an actual fence. Girls, you asked me for this topic for today, so you obviously want to talk about it, right? Let’s have a great discussion! Maybe you can change someone’s opinion with your words!’
Still nobody moved.
‘Okay, if you all sit in the middle, you will lose marks.’ I said.
The class immediately mobilized, some girls heading to the right, others hesitantly joining Latifah and Ayah on the left. A few stayed in the middle.
‘Great,’ I said. ‘Now, who would like to start?’
‘Me!’ shouted Latifah, her hand shooting up in the air.
‘Okay, go ahead.’
‘Right, girls,’ she began. ‘As you all know, it is very difficult relying on a driver all the time. My family’s driver is Raj, who is from India. Let me tell you about Raj. He is nothing but a lazy dog! He sits in the car just eating rice, farting, sleeping and smoking. He’s always late, sometimes he goes away with no permission and he drives like a crazy man! Last month Raj crashed into McDonalds drive-thru!’
‘Okay Latifah,’ I interjected. ‘What is your point exactly?’
‘My point is…Raj must go!’
‘So, you’re saying that women should be allowed to drive because it would make their lives easier?’ I asked. ‘That’s a good start to the debate…’
‘Teacher, I don’t know about other people’s lives! All I know is that we need to replace Raj!’
‘Okay, but we’re talking about women driving here. The subject isn’t Raj.’
‘Was he hurt?’ asked Maha, a timid girl sitting on the right.
‘Was who hurt?’ asked Latifah.
‘Raj, at McDonalds drive-thru,’ she replied.
‘Yes, he went to hospital,’ said Latifah, ‘but he came back after two days so we did not suffer his absence much. We were okay, praise be to God.’
‘Which drive-thru?’ asked Ghada.
‘Girls, please let’s stop talking about Raj for a second. The topic we are debating here today is whether or not women should drive,’ I interrupted.
‘I‘ll see your point, and raise you another,’ said Khadija.
‘What? This isn’t a Poker game, Khadija. Just try to respond to what Latifah has argued, and we’ll say that she’s arguing that it’s inconvenient for women here to have to rely on drivers.’
‘Okay. Yes, Raj indeed is a problem. He should be removed. But we cannot be responsible for doing the driving ourselves because, well, we are just too emotional,’ Khadija replied.
‘You are not serious!’ cried out Ayah from the left of the room, throwing her arms up in the air.
‘I mean, if the drivers on the road are crazy, maybe we cry and feel afraid. Then we stop the car because we cry. But we don’t tell the other cars that we will stop, you know, because we are crying. Then, well, then we are going to hospital… just like Raj!’
‘Ya Allah, that is ridiculous!’ shouted Ayah. ‘You will learn how to drive, just like women in all other countries do, and you will learn how to avoid bad drivers and be careful. Women in Kuwait don’t cry in the car!’
‘My father told me that they do, and they crash, and that is why Kuwait has such a small population,’ muttered Ghada.
‘I would like to raise you all for a minute, if I may,’ interrupted Abrar, speaking for the first time.
‘Why is everyone speaking like this is a Poker game?’ I asked.
‘Teacher, I’m sorry. What I want to say is that new evidence shows that driving damages our ovaries, like football. It is the way we sit in the car. It rolls back our pelvis, and we would find it harder to have babies that way. And if we do have babies but we drive a lot, maybe our babies will be severely disabled or have learning problems. I think this is important. We know this from a world-renowned reciter of the Quran, Teacher. He is a very clever man, Mashallah. He tells us to put the mind before the heart and emotion, when considering the driving issue.’
‘Ya Allah Abrar, seriously, where do you read your information?’ asked Khadija. ‘The pelvis is not rolled back! It is rolled up! How could it possibly roll back from the driving position? It rolls up!’
‘Khadija is right. Sheikh Al-Luhaydan has studied anatomy, because he is in fact a psychologist when he is not studying the Quran, and he said that it rolls the pelvis up and creates birth defects,’ said Zain, over in the left. ‘However, I don’t know if I want children actually, so I would like women to be allowed to drive, and I support the notion.’
‘He’s not a psychologist; he’s a judge,’ said Fatma.
‘You don’t want children Zain?!’ asked Khadija, her head rearing back a little in surprise.
‘Not really, no,’ Zain replied, nonchalantly. ‘Is that so horrible?’
‘You do realise that most Saudis, especially women, are too smart to believe such a ridiculous statement, don’t you?’ chimed in Nora, from Ayah’s grouping.
‘I don’t care if you believe it or not – I don’t want children!’ proclaimed Zain.
‘I’m talking about the damage to ovaries Zain, not your views on children!’ she replied. ‘If it were true that our ovaries are damaged when driving, do you not think that some other psychologist, or judge, or Sheikh, or whatever else he claims to be, would have known this by now? Women have been driving for years and years in other countries, and I have never read a report on a mysteriously high number of defected children in countries with the highest number of female drivers. It is absurd!’
I smiled. Nora was one of the most charming and intelligent students I had ever taught, and she took time out of a busy career in business management to improve her English at the academy. One of the most frustrating aspects of Saudi Arabia continues to be the high number of smart and ambitious women who are prevented from contributing to the economy, although it’s gradually improving.
‘Getting back to the point, everybody,’ intervened Abrar. ‘Whether the pelvis rolls back or up, it is certainly dangerous for women’s overall health to drive cars. That is an undisputed fact. I think it is undisputed, but nobody is sure.’
‘That is the opposite of undisputed,’ I said.
‘If I may, I’d like to say a few words that my group has prepared for this debate,’ said Ayah, standing up.
‘Go ahead,’ I said.
‘There are many reasons why women should be allowed to drive. Firstly, there is no legal, judicial or Sharia reason why women cannot drive. It is simply tradition that forbids us this right, not a written law. Many women are supportive of the idea now, like Manal Al-Sharif, who was filmed driving in protest and who many now recognise around the world. But it is not just these brave and smart women; it is also some Saudi men, and more than you would expect ladies. Very recently, a young Saudi man posted a short YouTube clip showing his daughter how to drive, because he said he wouldn’t mind her getting a driver’s license. There are also influential figures such as Prince Al-Waleed, who finds it embarrassing that his country still forbids women this right. Raha Mubarak is a Saudi woman famous for being the first female in our country to climb Mount Everest, and Hanadi Al-Hindi has been praised for becoming this country’s first female commercial flight pilot. She can fly a plane, but she is not allowed to drive her car home after work, because that is, apparently, when she might get dangerously emotional. Girls, do you see the lack of logic here?’
‘Where is Mount Everest?’ I heard somebody whisper from the back of the room.
‘It’s nice to hear about the achievements of Saudi women rather than always reading in the foreign media about the inequality they face, Ayah so thank you. Can anyone respond to her on the opposing side?’ I asked, looking around the room to the girls on the right.
‘I have a response, ‘ said Nadia. ‘Why can’t we look at the positives of our lives here, like what you just said teacher, because really – we are diamonds! We are treated with far more respect in this country that in most others. Men safely transport us from place to place while we have the luxury of time to do other things like read or talk to our children in the car. We are not expected to work, so we have more family time. We are not expected to dress to show our skin so that men may be attracted to us, and we do not have to worry that we will be instantly divorced once our husband gets bored, as is the case in so many other places. We are provided for here, our dignity is protected, as well as our safety, and we live comfortable lives. Yet all we do is complain that we want more. Ladies, shall we move to Afghanistan or Pakistan, our close neighbours, and compare our lives to those women? Would we still complain after that?’
‘I agree with Nadia,’ said Salma, sitting to her right. ‘Women in the west seem to have trouble even finding a partner to marry and staying married. Here, if we want to get married, our families can usually make it happen, and we are more likely to stay together and work at it. I know that is not really anything to do with driving, but I am agreeing with the point that people do not know the good parts about our lives. I think we are lucky here.’
The girls sat there in silence for a moment, before Ayah again got up to speak.
‘Nadia, and Salma, do you know how much domestic abuse goes on in this country, especially outside the cities, without anyone being punished for it? Do you know that a man can get a divorce by simply obtaining a document of his decision to do so, and that his decision is just ‘from his heart’? Yet, if a woman wants a divorce, she must prove that the husband has actually done something wrong first. The woman’s decision to divorce is called Khula, which means to ‘take off’. This makes it sound like she’s abandoning the marriage, in English. Women are not respected in this country, Nadia. They are possessions, sometimes treated with care, and sometimes without. We are not the lucky ones!’
‘Girls, have any of you in this room ever been hit by your husband?’ asked Nadia, angrily.
The girls hesitated for a moment before quickly shaking their heads from side to side.
‘Of course nobody will admit it here!’
‘No, it means that their husbands are good men!’
‘Actually Ayah, there is a new advert on the television that tells us to report any abuse from our husbands and not to be afraid to do so. People say that it is having a great effect. I am not saying that it does not happen, abuse I mean, but the country is improving here,’ said a girl seated next to Nadia.
‘Not fast enough!’ shouted Ayah.
Before I could calm everyone down, Ghada stood up.
‘Ghada, sit down!’ hissed Fatma, her older sister.
‘I want to talk about my father,’ she said quietly, ignoring her sister.
‘Go ahead Ghada,’ I said.
‘A few years ago, I was in the car with my father, and we were going home,’ she began. ‘Suddenly, out of nowhere, he started grabbing his arm and his face turned bright red. He was having a heart attack, and I didn’t know what to do.’
Fatma’s eyes started to tear up, but she didn’t stop her sister from speaking.
‘It was just me in the car, and no other cars were on the road, and I didn’t know the number to call for the ambulance. We don’t really use them much here.’
‘I knew how to drive because sometimes we are allowed to drive in the desert. The hospital was so close by, and I knew we could get there. I ran around to his side, pushed him to the passenger seat and jumped into his place. I started driving to the hospital. I was so scared that I would crash.’
‘You see, you were emotional! You crashed! This is what I was saying!’ said Khadija.
‘No, I didn’t crash the car. But I didn’t make it to the hospital either. I was arrested by Muttawah, that’s the religious police teacher, in the middle of the road and taken to jail before I could get there.’ she replied.
There was a collective gasp from the class, and Fatma took hold of her sister’s hand.
‘Your father,’ said Latifah. ‘What happened to him?’
‘He was taken to hospital and he is okay praise be to God, but at that time he was unconscious and the only person who could sign the paper for me to be released was my father. So, I had to stay there until he was better. My uncle could have come for me, but he was embarrassed and thought that it was very wrong for me to drive.’
‘But that is crazy! Your father would have died!’ said Ayah.
‘I know, and I do not regret doing it, but at the same time I can understand both opinions and so it is hard for me to sit anywhere but the middle. It is possible that Allah does not want us to drive and maybe I have to trust the Sheikhs who advise us against it. I don’t know…’ said Ghada.
‘Our lives are too difficult like this!’ said a voice from near Ayah. It was Bushra, a normally shy girl who was fairly new to the class. ‘What about the new law that may come into place next year? My father’s boss is on the Shura Council and he told me that we may be banned from hailing taxis for safety reasons in the future. What are we supposed to do? Stand there and phone for a driver and just hope that he is available? And why are they making this new law? They are making it because we are constantly at risk of being harassed by taxi drivers once inside the cab. But we could fix all of this if we are just allowed women to drive!’
‘Don’t you have a driver?’ asked Lamia, sitting on the right.
‘Not everyone can afford a driver,’ replied Bushra. ‘I can’t afford a driver or a maid. I work at the mall.’
The class went quiet for a moment.
‘I have a good driver,’ said Asia, proudly, speaking for the first time.
‘So Asia, you’re sitting in the middle, but are you happy that women cannot drive because you have a good driver? What do you think?’ I asked, trying to get the rest of the class more involved.
‘About what?’ she asked.
‘About women driving!’
‘I think, maybe, that one day Saudi women…yes…they should be allowed to drive. But not our maids, teacher! They should not be allowed!’ She finished her statement with a sharp fist to the table, like a judge in a courtroom calling for lunch.
‘That is just crazy,’ Al-anoud said, sitting next to her and shaking her head. ‘You cannot prevent your maid from driving if we can drive, Asia.’
‘But if she can drive, maybe she will escape!’
‘Escape?’ I repeated. ‘Are you sure that’s the right word? She isn’t a prisoner in your home. You mean leave?’
‘You should make sure you keep their passports. That’s what we do, because our last one escaped. But she was lazy so we didn’t care so much. I heard she’s living under a bridge in Mecca now,’ said Maha.
‘Teacher, please don’t listen to them,’ said Fatma. ‘Not all of us think like this. Our maid has been with our family for more than twenty years. She is free to go whenever she wants, but she really is happy with us and we love her.’
‘I’m not saying our maid isn’t happy!’ Asia exclaimed. ‘I’m just saying that she cannot leave without our permission, that’s all. So, obviously she must not have access to our car, or permission by the Government to drive.’
‘If the laws changed,’ said Ayah, coming back to the conversation, ‘that right would have to be given to women of all nationalities, God willing.’
‘Girls, do you know what I did once?’ asked Oula, speaking for the first time while at the same time scrolling through her Twitter feed.
The class looked at her like they’d forgotten she was there. Oula rarely spoke, and was absent most of the time. When she was in class, she was deeply engrossed in social media.
‘If I really need to get somewhere, I simply dress up like a man,’ she said.
The class looked at her skeptically and Maha shook her head in quiet disapproval.
‘Now, I would like to add some information that Twitter and Google have kindly provided to me,’ she continued.
‘Ok go for it,’ I said.
‘Firstly, women cannot be said to be more emotional when driving, because in countries such as the United Kingdom, their insurance actually costs less than men’s insurance because they are less likely to crash. Not just in the UK actually, other European countries also believe that. I also just read that Saudi has one of the very highest death rates on the roads. That’s compared to the rest of the world. And yet they are all men driving here. It’s probably not linked, but it’s a coincidence. Secondly, gynecologist Mohammed Baknah, a highly respected Saudi doctor says that scientific studies have not proven that driving has bad effects on women’s chances to have babies. I tried to look up rolling pelvises but only came up with a Pilates website which isn’t much help. Thirdly, I’m not sure we can trust the words of this Sheikh because he also criticizes social media quite a lot but has his own Facebook page. Seems a bit of a contradiction there. Says here it’s run by his fans, but it looks like content written by him, so who knows? Ghada, sitting on the fence means not being sure which side you’re on and kind of being…what’s the word…neutral. It’s not an actual fence. And Mount Everest is…er…wait a second…it’s in Nepal. Oh and lastly, Raj is doing fine everyone. I know this because I just searched for him on Twitter under #Raj #India #Driver #Riyadh and he has an account! Maybe he was tweeting when he crashed into McDonalds. I’ll ask him. Right, are we done here?’
With those words, the sound of the alarm on my phone rang out, signaling the end of the lesson and another completed day in a Saudi classroom.