“Let me drive/Let me drive
I know my way around and I’m gettin’ kinda anxious to arrive
Let me drive/Let me drive
I can get us where we’re going, so move over honey, let me drive”
(refrain from Georgette Fry’s Let Me Drive)
I remember sitting in the back seat of my parents’ car (no car seat or seat belt of course) when I was about three years old, as my father taught my mother to drive. It was a harrowing experience in more ways than one, but ultimately my mother triumphed and had a driver’s licence.
My mother gets behind the wheel
Now my mum, a stay-at-home mother of three kids under the age of four, could pile all of us into the car, drop my dad off at work, and then do whatever struck her fancy. This was true liberation: her mother had not had a driver’s licence, and many of her friends did not drive and so were dependent on their husbands to get them around. (If I am being honest, I have to say that my mother was never a very good driver, but she loved to be in the driver’s seat.)
While, many years later, it was a thrill for me to get my licence, it was also something I took for granted. I lived in suburban Canada and came of driving age in 1970: it never occurred to me that because I was a girl I would be any less likely than my brother to drive a car.
For many women, driving a car has simply meant they have had to take on all the associated errands: running children to and from activities, buying the groceries, dropping off and picking up the laundry. Nothing terribly liberating in that. But for others, the ability to drive and access to a car has meant the opening of a whole world: independence, employment, the possibility of being alone, the chance to flee when it is not safe to stay.
Thelma and Louise
On November 6, 1990, before Thelma and Louise showed North America what two women in a car could really do, 47 women activists in Saudi Arabia, where it was against the law for women to drive, drove through Riyadh to demonstrate their commitment to the right of women in their country to drive. These women went to jail, lost their jobs and were condemned across the country. Their activism was quickly forgotten by most in the country but, for some women, they were heroes:
“Growing up, November 6th was always a day to remember. I was raised with the idea that it’s one of the biggest things that has ever happened in Saudi women’s history,”
It’s just one step . . .
While this is an important step forward in the fight for gender equality – both practically and symbolically – women in Saudi Arabia continue to face significant repression. Guardianship laws put Saudi women under the legal authority of their male relatives, who can limit their activities, including their ability to leave the country. (Women may now have the legal right to drive, but they still need permission from a male relative to acquire a car and can go to jail if they do not obey their guardian.)
Gender-segregation – whether in the form of women-only offices, shops, banks, businesses or branches of the country — has not yet been eliminated. Women are significantly under-represented in the paid workforce.
Simply being allowed to drive won’t address these serious inequities or eradicate the violence and abuse many women are subjected to in their families.
. . .but it’s an important one
Nonetheless, being able to drive matters. Never has this been more poignantly clear to me than over the past two years, as my siblings and I have had to gently nudge our mother – the once-proud driver who chauffeured six children (and later grandchildren) to and from countless activities, drove herself to university and later to work after her marriage to our father ended and drove, with a friend, on many a hiking adventure both near and far – out of the driver’s seat because of her advancing dementia.
She still mourns the loss of independence that has accompanied the retirement of her driver’s licence. As she said to me just a few days ago:
“It’s not that I want to go anywhere very exciting, Pam. I just want to be able to go there by myself, without having to ask someone to take me.”