Abeer Mishkhas

(WOMENSENEWS)–“How do you feel about being not allowed to drive?”

That is often the first question that foreign journalists ask a women in Saudi Arabia. And it’s not the best way to start a pleasant conversation. In fact, it’s a way to go straight to a sore point among women, in a country were women’s issues are a matter of extreme cultural sensitivity.

In the kingdom, we women are treated as secondary citizens, dependents of men. The only thing outsiders know about us is that we are always covered in black cloth and we cannot do things, such as drive cars.

Here men have the responsibility and right to perform women’s legal obligations. Men give women the permission to travel, to work, to move and even to have an identification card.

A system that could have worked 100 years ago is still applied today. But since people are not the same as a century ago, the system is running into some major snags.

For starters, more and more women are educated and seeking work outside their homes. Women here are still forbidden to work as engineers or lawyers, though we were given permission to become solicitors two years ago. However, we still cannot work in jobs that entail mingling with men and this means that few jobs are truly open to us.

Job Saturation in Fields Open to Women

Forced to take only jobs that are available for women–as doctors, nurses and teachers–female applicants about five years ago began saturating the job market in those areas and finding themselves shut out by rising unemployment.

In response to the problem, the private sector jumped in almost three years ago and started trying to provide more work opportunities for us. Often this was frustrating, however, because those tempting jobs would often require skills for which we had not been educated, such as speaking foreign languages and using computers. Since then, language and computer institutes have sprouted up to fill in these gaps.

So we are leaving our homes on a daily basis more often now. And that means transportation is a dire necessity, which puts us on a collision course with the 100-year-old idea that it’s normal and right for men to drive their female family members. In fact, however, this is a tiresome and demanding business for men. What often winds up happening is that, if women want to go places, they must hire cars and drivers.

Hiring a car and driver, however, is too expensive for many women. Transportation has, for many of us, become a major obstacle, since the country does not offer much in the way of public transportation.

A Conflict of Cultural Cues

So we are caught in a growing bind. We are getting cultural cues–in the form of more education and more job opportunities–that tell us we can and should be more independent. But the society does not give us the most basic liberties
–from driving, to being issued our own identification cards, to serving on consultative councils–to live up to the challenge of greater independence.

Women have begun speaking out against being marginalized in this way. In a recent television show aired in June, for instance, eight Saudi women aired their frustration over women’s lack of jobs, public voice and personal liberties. That program was only the beginning. It will be followed by more and more daring female voices, calling for more rights and equality.

Abeer Mishkhas is a Saudi Arabian journalist and an editor for the Arab News newspaper in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

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