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“To drive a car in Arabia is not only wanton”

Tuesday, 19 May, 2015

“In her Saudi Arabia homeland, Lubna Olayan can’t drive, show her hair in public or leave the country without her husband’s permission. She can, however, run one of the nation’s biggest conglomerates.” So begins Devon Pendleton’s profile of the Olayan Group and its manager in the Financial Review.

It is undeniably true that our world has progressed dramatically since Geraldine “Jerrie” Mock became the first woman to fly solo around the world in 1964. Back then, she piloted a single engine Cessna 180, nicknamed “Charlie”, through a flight that took 29 days and covered 22,860 miles (36,790 km), but despite this achievement some things have remained stubbornly the same. From Three-Eight Charlie, her memoir of that historic flight, this is the touchdown scene in Saudi Arabia:

“Dhahran Airport may be the most beautiful in the world. Its gleaming concrete strip is 10,000 feet long, and the marble-columned terminal is a worthy reminder of the graceful grandeur of the Islamic architecture of the Taj Mahal. A U.S. Navy Blue Angel jet was taking off as I came into the traffic pattern. Several hundred white-robed people were crowded onto the broad steps of the terminal, waiting to see the first flying housewife to venture into this part of the world. As I climbed from the red-and-white plane and was presented with a huge bouquet of gladioli (they had been flown in from Cairo especially for me), they saw from my blue skirt that I truly must be a woman, and sent up a shout and applauded.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the most puritanical, or orthodox, of the Muslim countries, and the Islamic religion makes the laws of the country. From the time of the Prophet Mohammed, Arabian women have been hidden from all but their immediate families. They may not see, or be seen by, the outside world. To show one’s face or even wear bright clothes is a great sin. For a woman to drive a car in Arabia is not only wanton but prohibited by law, under penalty of her husbands being sent to jail. While European or American women are permitted to go in public unveiled, even they may not drive. So the men were puzzled. Probably no one had thought to make a law saying a woman couldn’t drive an airplane, but somehow the men thought it couldn’t be happening.

Then, in the excitement, one of them evaded the handsome airforce guards that Prince — later King — Faisal had sent to look after Charlie and me. He looked into the crowded cabin, saw the huge gasoline tanks that filled the inside of the plane, except for my one seat. His white-kaffiyeh-covered head nodded vehemently, and he shouted to the throng that there was no man. This brought a rousing ovation.”

Jerrie Mock

Although she was warmly welcomed by her hosts, Jerrie Mock was not tempted to stay in the Kingdom. “It sounds terribly romantic, but as long as Islam rules the desert, I know that if I find a black camel-hair tent and venture in, I’ll be hidden behind the silken screen of the harem, with the other women, and my dinner will be the men’s leftovers.” Much has changed for the better since 1964, but Lubna Olayan still can’t drive, show her hair in public or leave Saudi Arabia without her husband’s permission.


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