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After what has been an abysmally long gap in posts I’ve come back to discuss something very dear to my heart. Driving!

Not driving trains though. Since the 17th of June there has been a small but determined group of people in Saudi Arabia who have decided to exercise their constitutional rights. These people are women and their right is to drive a car.

It is often believed that it is illegal for women to drive in Saudi. It’s not. There is a HUGE amount of social pressure on women to not drive and the police have arrested and imprisoned women for doing so. But there’s no law against it. One woman, Manal al Sharif, was imprisoned for nine days for not committing any crime. Even knowing that Saudi is a repressive state where it comes to women’s rights that’s astonishing.

Maha al Qatani is another woman driver. When she goes out in her car she goes equipped for prison with a bag packed. She also goes out with her husband by her side. It would be easy to dismiss the whole of Saudi as a mysogynist state but reality rarely lives up to blanket statements. Maha’s husband Mohammed supports her right to drive and sits with her so that she is not harassed for breaching laws and social conventions about being out in public on her own. I’m full of admiration for Maha AND Mohammed. And for all the other men and women who are challenging such a ridiculous situation.

This is not the first time that women have tried to drive. In 1990 women tried to drive. They were arrested and subjected to public censure, some were dismissed from employment and banned from foreign travel. This time the official reaction is less. Maha was given a traffic ticket for driving without a licence. This is a woman who holds two different international driving licences. She is refusing to pay it and apparently is going to frame it and hang it on the wall as a memento of being the first Saudi woman to ever receive a traffic ticket. Well done, that woman!

June the 17th was the first driving day. But it is not the only driving day. As the activists have said, it’s the day women in Saudi begin to drive. Not a one-off event. And in time it may well gather momentum until a time comes when it is no big deal to see a woman driving. That time will be a long way off, though. And here I can speak from a more personal experience.

London Underground employs a lot of women but driving is still seen as a male role. There’s no bar to women becoming drivers but few choose to do so. A lot of the reluctance may come from misperceptions of the job. Some balk at the shifts and their impact on family life but LUL do have family-friendly policies for anyone with young children and women I’ve spoken to who have kids have all pointed out that the extreme shifts actually allow them to spend more time with their kids than a 9-to-5 job would. I think the other big stumbling block is fear of the technical side of the job. I’m not sure that’s valid as stock trainers often comment that female trainees do better as they pay attention more and put more effort in but confidence in their abilities is lower than that of male trainees. There may also be a reluctance to work in an environment which is almost exclusively male. There’s not really much argument to that other than to say that I find that a depot which has more of a gender balance is a nicer place to work.

As it stands we have a ridiculously small number of women driving trains in London. It varies by line but my experience says it is somewhere between 3% and 8%. I know this because I sat down one day and counted the female drivers on two lines. Yes, they are so few that I can not only count them I can name them. Could you name every woman at your workplace?

It’s been a long time since Hannah Dadds decided to buck social convention and climb onto the front of a train. And very slowly women have decided to become drivers on the tube. In Saudi, women are starting to cast off societal chains and with luck and persistence women drivers will become so commonplace that nobody bats an eyelid. I hope that one day that also becomes the case for women driving on London Underground.

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