Saudi rights: Driving as feminist expression

Published: June 29, 2011
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Do the ladies who drive around in fast cars in Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi have any idea of the day and age they live in? Let them just visit Saudi Arabia and see how every woman found driving a car gets arrested for it. The Arab ladies, however, have chosen to make a women’s liberation issue of it. They are not stopping.

A feminist acquaintance of mine, who had always greeted me with some taunt or other about ‘your male chauvinist Pakistan’, told me today she was so happy with how liberal the country was. Alarmed, I asked for an explanation. She said she had just realised how liberal Qazi Hussain Ahmed and Maulana Fazlur Rehman were. Neither them, nor the neighbourhood prayer leader, she said had ever found her driving un-Islamic.

“I actually said a thanksgiving prayer today and wished well for all Pakistan’s maulvis.”

Well, I said, no harm done but maybe you should have waited a little. Cars are new to our society. Traditionally, a lady would ride in a litter or be carried in a sedan. Not so long ago girls in Lahore would ride bicycles. When they shifted gears and started driving cars, our clerics did not even notice the change.

Not so the Saudi clerics. They took prompt notice of women driving cars and issued an edict against it – beating even the lawmakers to it. So while Saudi law does not bar women from driving, the edicts of the orthodox clergy are mightier than the law.

How vividly I remember the days the ladies had started driving cars in Lahore. The municipal corporation had recently cut a number of trees citing the now familiar road widening excuse and I had written a column or two against it. A reader then urged me to also write about what he called another threat to Lahore’s trees – Kishwar Naheed’s driving. The lady, he said, was learning how to drive and her car was felling a tree or two a day. I advised Kishwar in my column to spare the trees – there were always the poles WAPDA had erected for power supply. Actually no more than two or three poles were deformed before Kishwar got the hang of it.

Also around that time Jameela Hashmi, the novelist, decided she could no longer continue to be dependent on her driver. One day she actually arrived at my place and happily announced that she had safely driven herself all the way from her home on her own. Just then there was a knock on the door and a neighbour complained that his pet chicken had been trampled under the car the guest had arrived in.

I offered my condolence and asked whether he had finished reading Dasht-i-Soos, the novel he had borrowed from me. He said he had and was convinced it was a masterpiece.

Well, I said, the author is visiting me.

“Where do you expect her to drive her car if not in Lahore? Our ladies are new to the enterprise. A chicken or two and a few trees cannot be too great a sacrifice if we support the revolution.”

He seconded me enthusiastically and the chicken ceased to be an issue.

It was through these willing sacrifices in Lahore that the ladies got their freedom to drive. We should value it. Our clerics too did not object to it and the ladies should be grateful to them. But maybe they should hold the prayers for a while to make sure the developments in Saudi Arabia have no repercussions here.

*Translated from Urdu

Published in The Express Tribune.

Intezar Hussain

Intezaar Hussain

An eminent Urdu fiction writer who writes short stories and novels, and also columns for newspapers in English.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.