It never ceases to amaze me the goofiness of some people who feel they must find a creative way to deal with the "Saudi women's driving problem."
Instead of a coherent approach to the issue of Saudi women driving, like, say, give them a driver's license and set them loose on the roads (they can't drive any worse than men), do-gooders like the Dubai-based Saudi Center for Studies and Media have come up with an alternative to establish women-only buses. The center, you see, has made the shocking discovery that 35 percent of a Saudi woman's income goes to pay for taxis or private drivers.
Really, now? It's taken an organization 30-odd years to realize that Saudi women fritter away a third of their annual income on strangers to drive them around Saudi Arabia.
The center's proposal, which apparently is now before Saudi Arabia's Shoura Council for consideration, seeks to develop a 600-bus system within five years that is capable of carrying about 2.5 million women. It also will create jobs for 3,000 male drivers. It's a proposal that is likely attractive to conservatives who will do anything to prevent Saudi women from driving a car. The bus system will be called "Hafilati" or "My Bus."
I call it "Idhlali" or "My Humiliation." Here's why:
-- Hafilati, or Idhlali, will delay for years the hopes of Saudi women to drive their own cars. There will be no incentive for Saudi society to permit women to drive if a women-only bus system is in place.
-- Men will still be driving around women. Jamal Banoun, director of the center, states the obvious: "The primary aim of this is to provide protection for women against moral problems and sexual harassment that they sometimes face from taxi drivers." Does Mr. Banoun honestly think sexual harassment by drivers will end because women are going to switch from a taxi to a bus?
-- What woman in her right mind is going to stand at a bus stop in 45-centigrade heat with her kids and wait for a bus that may or may not show up on time?
-- Idhlali further encourages the employment of expatriates when the focus should be placed on employing Saudi men and women.
As much as I love Jeddah and the place of my birth, Madinah, neither city is the model of public transportation infrastructure. And this is the reason why a public transit system for women will fail. If Idhlali is to be based on the current public transit model, then Saudi families should prepare to lose a female family member or two to death or serious injury.
We are, frankly, a nation of unenforceable traffic laws. At least by driving a car, a woman can employ defensive driving skills and assume some responsibility for her own safety.
Today's bus drivers operate their buses like kids driving bumper cars at an amusement park. Like every other driver on the road, they don't bother themselves with posted speed limits or lane-changing etiquette. Posted bus stops are inconsistent from neighborhood to neighborhood. The buses are death traps. They are poorly maintained and I imagine that the records on tire and brake safety are not accurate. The current buses are filthy and rattle so much the fillings in your teeth will fall out. If there is rhyme or reason to our current public transit system, I have not seen it.
Yet we are to expect that Idhlali, which presumably will be based on our current bus system, will not have these problems. I don't think Saudi women are going to have to bother with these troublesome questions. I suspect this recommendation will go nowhere like so many other wonderful proposals to better integrate Saudi Arabia's National Treasures into society. Anybody want to revisit the proposal to employ women in lingerie shops? And even if Idhlali manages to get implemented I wonder just how many Saudi women are going to subject themselves to the inconvenience of bus travel after years of being chauffeured in a car.
The real issue of this half-baked plan, though, is that it diverts our attention away from the core question of just when will women be permitted to drive in Saudi Arabia.
Some female professionals have endorsed Idhlali as a step forward. It's not a step forward. It's a diversion designed to reduce the pressure on Saudi society to permit women to drive. I'm all for public transit. I'm all for women-only buses. But give women the right to drive first, and then implement a women-only bus system. Saudis can demonstrate real sincerity by granting women the basic, fundamental right to choose her own mode of transportation.
This Band-Aid approach to solving the expense issue of transportation and sexual harassment by male drivers weakens the voice of Saudi women advocating for their right to drive. If Saudi women settle for a seat on the bus they will never get behind the wheel of a car.