In the recent historic move by the Saudi Government of lifting the ban against women drivers was welcomed by automobile companies worldwide, the world applauded the Saudi Prince, the women were seen to be the most jubilant and Saudi Arabia’s women-driving activists heaved a sigh of relief. While we acknowledge and understand that we’re in 2018 where women ought to drive if not allowed to choose their life partners, we also take note of the fact that while the government ‘allowed’ its women to drive, it explained its stance as a profitable gesture for the automobile industry and the economy at large. As PriceWaterhouseCoopers accurately estimated car sales in Saudi Arabia will now grow by 9% annually until the year 2025. Car leasing will grow by 4% annually during that period. By 2020, about 20% of women in the country will be driving. The market could be worth almost 30 billion Saudi Riyals (about $8 billion) by 2020.
While initially the government was praised for its move, it later turned ugly when women rights activists were arrested and held for posting videos of women driving and making it a quest for gender equality. However, being under the clutches of men for decades these women would accept any means of freedom even if that is given to them bearing the name of ‘profit’. Saudi women took to social media and shared joyous photos of them taking to the wheels, which was indeed celebratory. In the same light, drawing a comparison with the situation of women driving in India, from a cursory glance one would say that it has been fair to its women by never holding such a ban on its women and it is rather surprising their numbers even after 70 years of independence and as a developing nation are dismal.
To put this in context, driving is not a chemical or mathematical code that needs to be debunked but just like any other skill such as cooking, swimming, and cycling it is learned and cultivated through practice. However, since gender is so deep embedded in our way of living and outlook, anything that a woman is seen doing even if that is something as basic as driving is observed with oddity. While movement of most women in India is controlled by the power button in the hands of a male member in the household, driving on the roads is an absolute out of bounds. This however, is the situation despite having no such ban like Saudi Arabia and in a country where the foundational document i.e., The Constitution of India guarantees no discrimination on the basis of sex apart from Fundamental Rights which also promises free movement of all citizens irrespective of one’s sex within the country.
In this thread, there are a lot of parents including mine, who have fought the odds and have raised their daughters with the same ideals and opportunities as their sons and hence, not surprisingly some of these women also take to the roads as drivers. Drawing from the notion of ‘oddity’ as I mentioned earlier, such women are not vehemently negated on the roads such as Saudi Arabia (as it was before the decree) but they are meted with alien-like-treatment. Most of women who drive in India (the few who do) are constantly stared at and in plenty, often making one uncomfortable in one’s own skin. These spectators comprise men and women both; wherein men stare in awe, women usually have a mixed expression – a combination of awe and a desire to ‘accomplish’ the same. I use the word accomplish here only to emphasize that most women aren’t even ‘allowed’ free mobility outside the confines of their homes without a male accomplice, let alone learn driving.
As women have different stories to tell, there are some who drive as qualified drivers as a profession such as those in the Priyadarshini Taxi services or Ashwini Dombale Auto driver in Mumbai or even Venkadarath Saritha Delhi’s only bus driver. These women share their horrors of being harassed, molested, and also given sexist sermons. Most women have shared horrific stories of men stopping their cars, abusing them, and passing sexist comments at them while the many onlookers witness the situation silently and even click photos.
It is 2018, twelve odd years away from the UN proposed year to achieving gender equality and end all kinds of violence against women and girls. But, how far are we from achieving it? While we may also boast about never having banned ‘our women’ from driving and a make a joke or two about Saudi securing last place in a automobile race, we might want to introspect on the appalling 11% of those behind the wheel are women, according to the Road Transport Yearbook 2015-2016. Therefore, it might also be worthy to think about how our prejudice against women drivers whether it’s their pace, or their mechanics or even as women pedestrians opt not to cross the road in front of a ‘woman driver’ because a woman doesn’t know her mechanics and is better at home reigning the kitchen that behind the steering wheel.