A car of one’s own

Women who can drive

Women who can drive, but don't

In parts of Saudi Arabia, women have been driven to defiance by a political-religious establishment that forbids them from taking claim of their own cars. But hearing about this ongoing assertion makes me think of the things a car means for women — agency, independence, wider physical horizons, a sense of insulation and security. And it also makes me think of women who don't drive, even if they have the luxury of a car. And of how utterly lame we are, to deny ourselves freedoms so painfully important to other women. (Obviously, there are many men who don't drive either, but when women wimp out, it tends to be excused more. Or so I think.)

I learnt how to drive when I was 18, but I'm capable of driving to the extent that a few simulator sessions equip you for flight. Traffic throws me off, I tell people, or that I lack the hand-eye coordination and observation it takes to survive Delhi roads, or that I have a sub-par sense of direction. And now that I think of it, it has constricted my life for years in hugely unnecessary ways — from having to make nice to people who pick me up and drop me, to not pulling my weight on road trips, rarely going to inconvenient locations, leaving early, and generally living a more hemmed-in, dependent existence than I'd like.

There are several kinds of women who can drive, but don't. The Nation columnist and activist Katha Pollitt wrote a wonderfully frank essay, Learning to Drive, about slowly picking up the pieces in middle age after her longtime lover leaves her. She was then a 52-year-old feminist who didn't believe that being ferried about was a female prerogative, unlike her mother, who was the more traditional kind of non-driver — the kind who looks sadly at jars that won't open, and enlists help for everything after some initial resistance. Then there are those women who, after years of schlepping their shiftless friends and boyfriends and then children all over town, finally give up and refuse to get behind the wheel. A recent survey revealed that even in American households that identify as feminist, men do most of the driving. Maybe it's part of the sad phenomenon that psychotherapist Colette Dowling identified as the Cinderella complex — how some women still have an ambivalent relationship with independence — wanting it and shrinking from it, privately just wanting to be rescued and taken care of. Maybe that's what unites us non-drivers, a readiness to accept confines and shrunken habitats because being a free agent is too scary. It's easier to just go along.

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