Saudi women fight driving ban

By Hannah Sparks

Joelle Hatem/Flickr

On Oct. 26, women across Saudi Arabia got into their cars and drove. So did women in nations all over the world, of course – Saudi Arabia just has the distinction of being the only country on earth to prohibit women from driving. No written law officially bans it, but the government does not issue licenses to women, effectively making it illegal.

Much of the concern over female driving stems from religious traditions of guardianship and gender segregation, which is still the norm. In most cases Saudi women cannot marry, work, travel or open bank accounts without the permission of a male guardian.

Despite slowly changing attitudes and increased support for women’s rights across the region, earlier in the week, about 100 clerics and other religious officials in the kingdom sought an audience with King Abdullah to discuss the supposed pernicious effects female driving may have on the highly conservative Saudi society. These effects range from broken marriages to a falling birth rate to sudden promiscuity to non-specific yet rampant chaos in the streets.

Citing “medical studies,” one cleric, Sheikh Saleh Al-Loheidan said that driving could also affect female reproductive organs, pushing pelvises mysteriously upward, dislodging ovaries and causing vague birth defects. Note that the same floating-uterus effect apparently does not occur while sitting in the passenger’s seat as a man drives, or in any of those other countries where women are actually allowed to drive.

While parts of the Arab world have been undergoing serious changes since the beginning of the “Arab Spring,” Saudi Arabia has been slow to change. Protest is banned in the kingdom and even activists who have been on the scene for decades are reluctant to create truly confrontational situations with leadership.

Still, the push for a woman’s right to drive has been ongoing for more than twenty years. During similar driving campaigns in 1990 and 2011, women were detained by police, fined and even fired from their jobs for participating. In 2011, one woman was sentenced to 10 lashes, but that ruling was overturned by the cautiously progressive King Abdullah, who seems to have a wishy-washy kind of sympathy for the movement. That being said, a Kuwaiti woman was arrested in Saudi Arabia over the weekend for driving her ailing father to the hospital and is currently still in custody.

The driving movement is part of a larger campaign for increased recognition of women’s rights in the kingdom. “Women2Drive,” the 2011 incarnation, was an offshoot of “My Right to Dignity,” which started as an online petition by Manal Al-Sharif, the reluctant figurehead of the driving movement. In a 2012 interview, Al-Sharif said the goal of My Right to Dignity is “to spread awareness about women’s rights, challenge taboos and the misinterpretation of sharia (Islamic religious) laws.”

The Oct. 26th Women’s Driving Campaign also began as an online petition in Sept. 2013 and now has more than 16,000 signatures. Some participants filmed themselves driving and uploaded the videos to Youtube to garner further support and visibility.

It’s clear to my Western feminist sensibilities that the de facto ban on female driving is wrong and the guise that it is put in place for women’s protection is almost worse. The cultural and religious edict that women be kept dependent on their male guardians “for their own good” suggests that reforms must be made not only in respect to the sheer logistics of women’s rights, but also in regards to attitudes toward women in general. If the Saudi government fears so much for the safety and chastity of its female citizens in the big, bad world, it ought to direct its messages to the behavior of its male citizenry, which it offends by relegating them to the status of beasts without an ounce of self-control.

But that is, of course, a common and yet still unanswered feminist refrain.

“We don’t want to be like the Western world” is yet another common refrain, one heard all over the “non-Western” world. And yes, the West, specifically the United States, does have its problems and serious ones at that. However, nations like Saudi Arabia, who are allied with the United States and have appropriated malls and other hallmarks of Western commercial culture, appear hypocritical when they deem malls an acceptable Western contribution, but not human rights.

And, edging on the hated theory of moral relativism, a Guardian article suggests that Western feminist sensibilities may not even apply in this situation. Most of the Saudi women surveyed for the article were actually against female driving for many of the same reasons religious leaders argue for its continued ban.

Notably, one woman said it was “just a crazy imitation of America, and doesn’t mean more liberation for women. It rather means liquidation of the society and inferiority of its moral values.”

Are the surveyed women just repeating what they’ve been told for fear of dissenting or do they truly believe driving is an unnecessary luxury for women? As Rothna Begum writes for CNN, driving “has become for Saudi women what a bus seat was to Rosa Parks and other African-Americans in the 1950s.” And, from where I stand, I would tend to agree.

Hannah Sparks is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]