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Saudi Women Driving Ban Affects Men Too

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RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- It's 5 p.m. on a weekend and Faisal Auda is at the wheel of his 2005 bright green Chevy Optra. Two of his five sisters are in the back seat.

They're on Riyadh's Ring Road, headed for IKEA. The women's shopping list includes mirrors, lamps, and bath mats, and since they've been aiming to get to the popular store for three months, Sabah, 22, and Nora, 20, are piling up the purchases.

Their brother is a sweet-tempered soul, and he is all patience as they fill their carts. When someone asks if he's having a good time, he laughs gently.

"That's a good question," he replies. "I wouldn't do this every day in the week."

Yet, this is how thousands of men in Saudi Arabia, where women are not permitted to drive, spend uncountable hours of their free time: chauffeuring female relatives. To school. To work. To the hospital. To the hairdresser. To the library. To job interviews. To the mall.

Sure, many Saudi families do have the relatively inexpensive luxury of a driver, whose salaries range from $186 to $266 a month. But thousands of others cannot afford a chauffeur, who also requires room and board.

Or they choose not to have one, in which case men resign themselves to a situation that most regard as normal, because that's how it's been all their lives.

Auda, 25, who works in a Saudi company as government liaison, says his middle-class family used to have a driver before his father died in the late 1990s.

Two of his five sisters are married, so he's off the hook with them because their husbands drive them. But he is primarily responsible for driving his mother and three single sisters, which he admits is a big drain on his time.

"But perhaps you've noticed there are some books here," he says, gesturing around his car. "I've learned from my mistakes. Before, I just stayed and waited for them. But it's a waste of time. So I bring books to kill time."

Auda says he wishes his widowed mother could drive because then "she can help a little bit" with the chauffeuring.

Of course, in a pinch, his sisters can use taxis. But nobody in the family likes that option, saying it's unsafe.

Weddings are a nightmare.

"Usually, I'm too tired" to enjoy the festivities, Auda says, "because I'm preparing the whole day for the wedding. You have to take the dresses from the dry cleaners. You have to get the gifts, pick up the hairdresser for the girls. Drive the hairdresser back.

"Sometimes, for example, there is a hairdresser working at home on five women, and there is another five who want to go to salons. You can imagine the headache. You are tired because you are driving three to four hours before the wedding."

Since King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz announced a major government shake-up two weeks ago, bringing in more progressive officials, Saudis who favor social reforms have been rejoicing. The king's move even raised hopes among some young women that the ban on female drivers might soon be lifted.

But that is not likely. Many senior officials, starting with the king on down, would like to revoke the ban -- which came in the form of a religious ruling from Saudi's top Islamic scholar almost 20 years ago.

But significant numbers of both men and women are opposed to letting women drive because they see it as a harbinger of family disintegration and female liberation that would destroy Saudi society.

It is now such an explosive issue that the king appears to have decided to let the ban stand for the time being and focus on more important reforms in education and the courts.

Some government officials suggest privately that the ban will never be formally reversed. Instead, they say, women will just starting driving here and there, until it gradually becomes accepted by society.

In fact, the local press carries recurring reports of how adventurous girls grabbed the keys to the family car and took it for a drive -- sometimes, with disastrous results. In one incident last year, a female driver was killed in a crash.

Since there is no law in the criminal code banning female drivers, women caught driving nowadays are simply turned over to husbands or fathers with a warning. One police officer recently told Arab News, a daily, that such incidents are left to families to resolve.

Mohammed Hasan Alwan, 29, says his male friends complain about having to drive their relatives "all the time."

But most still don't favor letting women drive, says Alwan, a businessman and a novelist who thinks that women should drive because "it's their right."

Alwan believes that male attitudes will change as growing numbers of Saudi women enter the workforce.

"They have to drop her in the morning at work, then pick her up in the afternoon, then maybe take her to go shopping at night," Alwan says. "It's becoming increasingly inconvenient now. Eventually, I believe that's going to create economical and social pressure ... on men, and will make them change their minds. Fifteen years ago, men were not suffering as much."

If their male relatives are too tired, or not in the mood to go out, women are often stuck at home. Nora and Sabah don't suffer that way, they say, praising their brother for being considerate of their needs.

"Faisal is a good brother," declares Nora, who insists that she will be "the first woman driving when it is allowed" in the kingdom.

They do have some minor complaints, however.

Auda prefers that "you make an appointment" to go out for errands, Sabah says. "Not all brothers are like that. When their sisters say, 'I want to go to the library,' they just take her."
But "we have more steps with Faisal," she adds, laughing.

Nora's complaint is both familiar and universal. "He turns on his music that's special for him," she says. "I don't like it because it's old. Sometimes I ask, 'Faisal, please change the music.'"

The driver's usual response?

"No."

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