8 Mar 2011

Saudi: ‘Imagine if women could drive’

Somayya Jabarti, Managing Editor of English language newspaper Arab News imagines it’s the year 3000 and women drive in Saudi Arabia.

Imagine if women could drive - Reuters

Dropped off children at school, did some grocery shopping and now heading to work. It’s the end of the week, so much to do and so little time to do it in. Today’s TO-DO list:

1. Police station,
2. Passport, department,
3. Bank,
5. Beach resort, boat and jet-ski rental and reservation.

First things first: The police station.
“Salam aleikum, I’m Muna Ahmad, lawyer of Laila Ibrahim who ran a red light,” the uniformed man did not flinch. I continued, “She completed the consequential one night in jail and here’s the fine payment so she’s free to go.”

Still, silence.

“Excuse me, I’m talking to you.” “Where is he?” he barked.
“Where is who?” I replied. “Her ‘wali amr’ (legal male guardian)?”
“I’m her lawyer,” I said handing him a copy of my license.
“Even if you were her mother. If there’s no legal male guardian, then she stays jailed,” he spat without even looking up. “But she’s done the time,” I argued.
“She’ll do more time until her legal male guardian comes for her. Go complain to a qadi (judge) if you don’t like it.”

Drove to court. Bribed the court’s entry points and approached the judge. “Sheikh Saeed, I need a court order because my client’s being illegally kept beyond her due time.” The judge turned to the clerk/plaintiff. “Tell the woman to cover her face!”
“Cover your face woman!” ordered the clerk.
Fine. Face covered, I stated my case again.
“Tell her a woman’s voice should not be heard,” said the judge to the clerk.
Having had enough, face still covered I walked up to the judge and placed my client’s papers in front of him.

“Step back!” shouted the judge. “How dare you trespass God’s boundaries and approach me!”
“Women spoke directly to the Prophet (peace be upon him) and to the caliphs,” I retorted. “Surely, what of their abidance by God’s laws? Or are you better?” I was shouted out and forcefully removed from court. “Anyway, women — lawyer or not — are not allowed in here!” were the clerk’s last words.

Fuming, I drove to the Passport Department to renew my passport.
“Where is your legal male guardian?” asked the employee. “It’s just for passport renewal, not a first time,” I replied. “Where and who do you think you are?” said the employee. “Where’s the man responsible for you? No husband? Then get your brother, son, father or uncle.”
“But I’ve a national ID,” I said.

“Doesn’t matter,” he replied. “You can’t issue or renew any passport. Only a man can.”
Unbelievable. Blood pressure is a few degrees higher.
On the way to the bank, I received a call from my friend Sarah, in Bahrain for basic lingerie shopping where women work in such departments. Sarah, like many women avoid the local shops where only salesmen are allowed to work. A salesman can size you up (and down), even discuss in-depth, the best lace, the best silk and the best shades. She’d missed her flight back and asked if I could cross the bridge and pick her up?
“Can’t,” was my answer. “My passport’s expired. No passport means no male guardian travel-consent paper.”

At the bank, my 17-year-old daughter wants to open a bank account for her savings.
“I’m sorry you can’t,” apologized the employee. “As a minor only her legal male guardian can.”
“But I’m also her parent, here’s the form verifying my employment status and I’m an old client here!” I said.

“Doesn’t matter. For a minor, the legal male guardian needs to come with the required paperwork,” she replied. “If he’s self-employed, he needs to bring a chamber of commerce license. If not, he should bring an employment status verification paper from the company he works for.”
“And what if he’s unemployed?” I asked. “Then that’s it,” the employee answered.
“I pay her school tuition fees, save for her university education, buy her clothing, accessories, pay her allowance, pay for her leisure activities, travel expenses, tickets, mobile bills — all that counts for nothing? On what basis?” I asked.

“Wallahi (I swear), it’s not the bank but SAMA policy”, she replied.
Blood rising to a boil, my disappointed daughter (and savings) and I returned to the car and drove out to an Obhur beach resort for the weekend. It will be therapeutic after such a day.
“Can I help you?” the receptionist cordially asked.
“We’re here for the weekend, two nights”, I said.
“Is your legal male guardian with you?”
“No, only the two of us”, I answered.
“Your legal male guardian has to sign the required forms, in person,” he said.
“But I’m paying,” I said.
“Doesn’t matter,” he answered.
“OK then, we’d like a boat ride and to rent a jet ski,” I said.
“With a ‘mahram’ (male guardian again)?” he asked.
“I told you, just us two,” I retorted.
“Sorry madam, you can’t.” Absolutely livid, we drove back home.

So let me get this straight:
Only a man can bail a woman out of jail regardless of time served or paid fines.
Only a man can speak to and be seen by a judge.
Only a man can practice law.
Only a man can sell women’s lingerie.
Only a man can open a bank account for his child.
Only a man can check into a beach resort (regardless if the fact that women can check into hotels).
Only a man can rent a boat (ride) or jet-ski (in person or on paper).
Only a man can facilitate a woman’s traveling (in person or on paper).

BUT I’m allowed to drive? Must be a toy car, the wheel merely a pacifier?
All of the above is FACT. The only fiction is driving.
What illusive independence!
Adults are we?
Driving: What is our God-given right and due?

Mothers. Wives. Daughters. Sisters. Doctors. Educators. Writers. Researchers. Scientists. Journalists. Marketers. Bankers. Nurses. Financial analysts. Therapists. Architects. Lawyers. Pilots. Students. Designers. Mathematicians. Entrepreneurs. Businesswomen.

What were their words? “Doesn’t matter”.

Says man.
Not God.