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This piece, written by Abeer Mishkhas, originally appeared at Arab News.
For the past two weeks, both Saudi and Egyptian papers have been writing about a single traffic accident. In two countries that have unusually high numbers of traffic accidents, so much attention to a single accident deserves a look. The reason for the extensive coverage was not the arrival of an alien on the streets of Cairo. In fact, the central player in the whole drama is Saudi woman.
Her story has become the talk of websites and many commentaries.
Yet when we look closely, there is hardly a story: A woman had an accident and is being charged with hitting two people. What is most interesting is how this ordinary story has been treated in Saudi Arabia and in Egypt.
In Egypt, the focus was a rather sharp attack on the girl, her social status and wealth, all deduced from the fact that she was driving a Hummer. And of course, some saw the contradiction in this girl’s situation: Allowed to drive in Egypt but not in her own country. As for the Saudi reaction, many wondered why the Egyptian press made such a big deal of the fact that the driver was Saudi. As far as many Saudis were concerned, this accident was no different from many others. The story was carried almost daily in the Saudi papers. The slant was always against the girl, not because she drove recklessly and hit two people but because it apparently showed that women should not drive and there should be no call for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia.
Sometimes it is interesting to have a look at readers’ comment in order to gauge certain social trends. In this particular case, some of the responses were reasonable; they concentrated on the facts with some saying that there was no story and that it was no more than an unfortunate traffic accident. In Saudi Arabia we see plenty of accidents every day and we have one of the highest rate of traffic accidents in the world. But looking at the majority of comments, most were delighted that the driver was a woman.
They used it as a chance to voice their anger at women driving, saying that women should never be allowed to drive; none of them seemed to remember or note that the record number of accidents in Saudi Arabia are caused only by male drivers.
And there were those who called for a fatwa against women driving and who said that women should not be allowed out of their houses. Typical!
But all in all, the responses draw a give a picture of our society, whether it is a general picture we can only guess, but we can certainly draw conclusions from people’s ideas and attitudes. One of the most striking things is how much racism and sexism the comments reflect, and how little trust and esteem my countrymen give to women.
There was another recent incident, this time in Hail in the north of the Kingdom, which involved a woman driving. The paper Okaz reported that a 19-year-old girl had driven her father’s car and caused an accident in which she injured herself and a relative who was also in the car. The police said the accident was caused by “speed and lack of concentration.” Of course, the girl’s father was called in to take her from the police station.
The fact that this girl — and many before her — drove without her male guardian’s permission of course draws plenty of comments from readers. They invariably point out the need to control those reckless women, but maybe if those readers spare a moment and actually think about the reasons why these incidents happen, and how women actually are deprived of a right and that it is not a male privilege to sit behind the wheel.
Just because we are the only country in the world that does not allow women to drive does not make us right.