Saudi women are not permitted to drive. If they need to go somewhere, they either have to be rich enough to keep a paid driver or have a male relative take them. I have a wonderful brother. He has two wonderful sisters. If he had had to drive us around for the past 60 years, I don't think any of us would still be thinking the other was so wonderful. In fact, I'd be willing to bet he'd have joined the witness protection program by now.
Think of all the errands most of us run in any given day. Family errands. Personal errands. Banking. Pharmacy. School. The list goes on and on. Can you imagine, ladies, what it would be like to have to sit at home waiting for a male relative to take you out at 3 a.m. when you realize you don't have anymore baby formula or chocolate?
I think what blows my mind the most is the idea that anywhere in this world women are not allowed to drive cars. Not allowed! I can't begin to imagine anyone having that much power over me. Especially male relatives. Most of mine are probably grateful every day that they don't have that power over the women in their lives because their lives would be nowhere near as nice and comfortable if they did. We are a feisty group of Italian women (and one Irish firebrand) with minds of our own and absolutely no problem in expressing ourselves. I think the men are extremely happy that we can drive ourselves wherever we want to go so they can watch golf in peace.
Most mind boggling is that women in Saudi Arabia are allowed to be educated and work in jobs pre-approved by their male relatives. So it's not a matter of the Saudi male thinking his female relatives have no brains. It is apparently that they think if women are allowed to drive, their morals will go to hell in a hand basket. To which I can only say, really? You think women are the problem here? Women are the ones who can't be trusted? Or is it that you don't trust yourselves and women are forced to pay the price?
Here's what really bothers me, though. The Saudis are a regime America completely supports. They buy support in their own country by allowing one of the most austere and fundamentalist interpretations of Islam to be practiced with no interference from the royal family. They buy American support with oil. The only people who don't have any support are the women who are still treated as though they can't make the most basic decisions for their life without the wisdom and guidance of a man. They can't get an education without the approval of their primary male relative. They can't take a job without his OK. They can't drive to the store for an impulse purchase of an ice cream cone without both male permission and a male driver.
I get that the United States has to play nice with Saudi Arabia because we need both their land for our military activities and their oil to fuel what's left of our economy. Women's rights, dignity and life run a distant second to those concerns. But I must ask, if this were happening to men, would the United States take the same "what can we do about it" attitude? Think about Viagra. Health insurance was immediately required to cover it. But we're still waiting to see if birth control pills are worth the effort. The difference in those two meds? One affects men. The other affects women.
And so the dichotomy of women as second-class citizens continues to be a reality even in our own society. Clearly, the men who still overwhelmingly run our government and corporations have no problem in looking the other way when unfair treatment of women is occurring in a country they need for their own purposes.
So for all the progress women have made around the world, the reality is that our progress is still contingent on it not interfering with anything men really might want. Because when push comes to shove, our government is very comfortable turning a blind eye to inequities that, if happening to men, would be cause enough to start a war.
Elise Patkotak is an Alaska writer and author of "Parallel Logic," her memoir of 28 years in Barrow.