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Drafting a New Story: Women's Rights in the Middle East

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From Arab News
September 12, 2010

Noura Hamdan, 55, has been behind the wheel since the age of 17, despite the fact there is ban on women driving in the Kingdom.

When still a teenager, she used to drive a tanker that transported water, which would then be distributed among local villagers. As she grew up, Noura became popular among the residents in her remote desert region.

Even though Noura had heard about the controversy raging in the Kingdom’s cities about whether to allow women to drive or not, it never bothered her.

Speaking to Al-Riyadh Arabic daily, Noura recalls that she never encountered any awkward situation since she started driving.

“This is mainly because of the cooperation and respect that was showered upon me in our desert community. Nobody in our region sees women behind the wheel as a strange thing. As far as people in the remote desert regions are concerned, this is a necessity,” she said.

According to Noura, in the past many women from neighboring villages would travel on camels.

“But now the situation has changed drastically. As women, we use vehicles only when it is necessary. Despite my record of driving for more than 35 years, I have never driven to any cities and I will not do so considering the fast and heavy traffic in urban areas,” she says.

Shahira, another desert woman aged 45, was also forced to learn how to drive.

“My husband died 10 years ago, leaving behind two daughters. I found it very difficult to find suitable transport for them to and from school. I was not in a position to rely on foreign workers who operate private taxis,” she said, adding that she learned how to drive from her nephew.

“Then, I bought a pickup truck and started driving. In the beginning, my travel was restricted to driving between my home and nearby schools. I chose to travel only in the daytime. Later, I started driving my truck to shops and stationery stores. Some women from my neighborhood also began to travel with me.”

Shahira recalled a bad experience when she tried to help another woman from her village learn how to drive.

“When I eventually let her drive by herself, she lost control and damaged the truck after hitting a tree. I had to take the vehicle to a workshop for repairs,” Shahira said.

“The mechanics asked me to produce some paperwork from the traffic police. When I approached the traffic police, they said they could only give the papers to men. My nephew went to the officers and told them the accident was his fault.,” she said.

Shahira added that she vowed never to teach any other women how to drive using her vehicle.

There have been continuous calls to overturn the Kingdom’s ban on women driving. While women’s rights activists in the country have been openly campaigning for the right to drive, many high ranking officials maintain it is a societal issue and will be resolved only when Saudis feel the time is right.

Earlier, a group of more than 100 Saudi women signed and sent a petition to Second Deputy Premier and Minister of Interior Prince Naif, asking that the ban be overturned.

However, this controversy does not seem to affect people living in remote desert villages. They are of the view that women driving is a necessity when taking into account their living conditions.

Saud bin Muhammad, a village resident, says it is very strange that such controversies are still taking place.

“Since my childhood I have seen women driving. They use vehicles for urgent errands,” he said.

“Sometimes, this has helped save family members who were suffering from serious diseases. In such cases, women take them to primary health centers and hospitals that are far away from the village.”

He added that some villagers have been teaching their wives and daughters how to drive to tackle such unexpected situations.

Echoing the same view, fellow villager Fahd bin Saad said women drivers play the role of saviors in desert areas that lack public transportation facilities.