By Nicole Hunter-Mostafa – When I tell people I live in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, they get a panicked look in their eyes, as though this information automatically conveys that, whatever else I may be, I am also either a damaged woman or a threat to national security, or maybe both.
“What…what do you think about it? What’s it like?” they ask, searching for a neutral way to inquire.
My answer is always the same: “Honestly, I love it. I just wish I could drive.”
Even though I dislike that it’s required for all women to wear an abaya (a long, thin cloak-like garment…usually black, but I’ve been excited to see abaya designers and Saudi women here in Riyadh challenging the black norm lately), I don’t mind wearing it (and contrary to what you might have gleaned from Michelle Obama’s recent visit to Riyadh, it isn’t required for any woman to cover her head or face).
I don’t mind the lack of access to beer or bacon. To me, Riyadh is fascinating and full of possibility. There’s always a new restaurant or a new mall opening. (Burgers are huge here right now; from Burgeronomy to Hamburgini, everyone is chasing a new approach to hamburgers, hoping they will stumble upon a magic formula.) Traditional Saudi dishes have made their way onto my personal menu of comfort food.
I don’t feel unsafe here, even when out alone. It’s a relief to know that my Saudi-American daughter will never be mired in student loan debt like her mother (college is free for Saudi citizens, and if she wants to study in America, she can apply for the King Abdullah Scholarship Program), nor will she ever have to weigh the severity of a medical ailment against the cost of a doctor’s visit (Saudi Arabia has universal healthcare).
All year, I look forward to Janadriyah, the huge annual cultural festival that celebrates the unique elements of each of the regions of Saudi Arabia, and the Riyadh International Book Fair, where an enormous convention center is jam packed with vendors selling books for all ages, in all genres. The books. Oh, the books.
But the driving. Oh, the driving.
Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where women are not permitted to drive. When I was preparing to move here, I, like many a young American woman in love with a Saudi man before me, recognized the ludicrous injustice of the situation but thought, “Oh, I can handle that. It’s not ideal, but I don’t even like driving that much, anyway. It’ll be nice to be able to sit in the backseat and read. That will be awesome, actually.”
“I’ve been hearing the classic Saudi ‘What kind of woman always has a chauffeur? A queen! Queens don’t drive! Saudi women are treated like queens!’ argument for years now…”
Yeah, no. While it is awesome to be able to read in the car, it’s not awesome to be always relying on a man to take me places, especially knowing that I have over a decade more driving experience than many other drivers on the Riyadh streets but am not allowed to apply it because I do not bear the correct genitalia.
When I stumbled upon American media coverage of a Saudi historian who appeared on a Saudi TV show to claim that women in other countries drive because if their cars break down, “they don’t care if they are raped on the roadside” (much to the shock of the other guests on the show, not to mention the host), I was not altogether surprised. I’ve been hearing the classic Saudi “What kind of woman always has a chauffeur? A queen! Queens don’t drive! Saudi women are treated like queens!” argument for years now (even from women who aren’t particularly bothered by the driving ban). Let’s put aside the fact that, you know, queens actually do drive when they want to.
This man’s words reflect much more than just insidious, ingrained sexism. They also illustrate the classism and racism that also plague societies around the world.
Contrary to his claim that the show guests who were appalled by his ideas were “out of touch” with Saudi culture, this man’s comments actually demonstrate how out of touch he is with the average Saudi family. He claimed that “women are driven around by their husbands, sons, and brothers,” and that, like queens, “everybody is at their service.”
It’s true that my husband is often the one driving me around, but he’s certainly not at my service. He has a job outside of being my driver, one that, alas, doesn’t offer time off for spousal chauffeur duty. We have a family driver, but the driver must cart around not only me, but also my mother-in-law and my sister-in-law, and we have diverse schedules, to the point that conversations like this have become normal:
Me: “I need Mohammed”—the driver—“to take me to Kelly’s house for lunch on Thursday. Can you call him and explain to him?” (Mohammed doesn’t speak much English, and my Arabic is still basic, at best.)
Husband: “Okay, check with my sister and make sure she doesn’t need him for work.”
Me: “She says as long as he can pick her up from work at 2:30 and be back in time to take her to the gym at 4, it should be fine.”
Husband: “Great. I’ll pick you up, though, since Kelly’s apartment is on the other side of town and it’s right next to work, isn’t it?”
Me: “I think so.”
Husband: “Send me the directions so I can tell Mohammed, okay? What time will you be done?”
Me: “I don’t know, maybe 4-ish?”
Husband: “Well, I don’t get off work ‘til 5, but maybe I can work through my lunch hour and leave early to pick you up. I don’t know. Just go and we’ll figure it out.”
Thus, only a man who is perpetually free to drive his female relatives around for work, school, errands, social obligations, etc. and has never had to have a conversation like this would say such a thing…or a man who can afford to hire a driver for each of his female relatives, with no sharing and scheduling necessary. Even though the cost of hiring a driver is significantly less than it would be in other countries, a driver’s salary (whether rape-risk foreign male or rape-proof foreign female) is still out of reach for many Saudi families. Only a man, specifically one who has never had to measure time or money as resources, would say that every woman in Saudi Arabia always has a driver “at the ready when she gestures with her hand.”
Also, according to this guy, it was okay for women to ride camels in pre-industrial times, but women today can’t drive cars because cars can break down on the side of the road, and apparently, in his mind, women aren’t smart enough to call for help and then sit in the car with pepper spray in the glove box and the doors locked to protect themselves from marauding rapists. Moreover, if the car breaks down on the side of the road while a driver is at the helm, he will automatically protect the woman from rapists, even though he is not her husband, father, brother, or son. Or he may rape her. But that’s a chance we have to take, because you know, queens.
Whew, I’m confused. But in any case, from all of this, I think we can deduce one thing: camels are immortal. They never died, and they never had to stop for water or food or a breather. It’s pretty cool to know that the camels milling around the camel market down the road are the very same ones that traversed the deserts of Arabia with female riders on their backs in the time of Prophet Mohammed.
For that matter, drivers must be immortal, too! I mean, I guess we don’t have to ever entertain the possibility of a driver having a brain aneurysm behind the wheel or something, leaving us not only legally barred from driving the car to the hospital to obtain medical treatment for him (or her, as the case may be), but also, once again, at the mercy of would-be rapists.
I have to admit, it made me happy to see the guests and host on the Saudi TV show regard these ideas as the idiocy that they are. I know many Saudis feel the same way, even those who don’t particularly care if the driving ban is lifted or not. And on the bright side, perhaps if this guy’s plan to allow foreign female chauffeurs were implemented, I might be allowed to drive myself, since I’m an American woman and eh, you know, for me, being raped would merely be a temporary blow to my morale.
About the contributor
Nicole Hunter-Mostafa is an American woman living in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, with her Saudi husband and their Saudi-American baby girl.
Nicole writes, reads, takes photos, and works on her dissertation for her Ph.D. in education (with an emphasis in cultural & linguistic diversity). She blogs about her wonderings, observations, musings, adventures, misadventures, and experiments at The Same Rainbow’s End. You can also follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.