To Drive, or Not to Drive; Not a Question for Saudi Women
Author: Jaclyn Nardone
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on: 02/04/2010
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia earned its name from the 18th century ruling Al Saud family and was founded in 1932 by the Lion of Najd, better known as King Abdul Aziz.[i] Located in the Gulf region of the Arab world, Saudi is surrounded by the bordering countries of Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Yemen. This Wahhabi state is considered the most conservative Islamic country, as it houses both the “Grand Mosque in Mecca and the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, the two holiest sites in Islam.”[ii] In addition to being the much-respected house of Islam, Saudi is also known as a nation strictly dominated by men. Qiwama, “the act of being superior to, a degree above, or given more physical strength,”[iii] exemplifies the importance and recognition of a male’s status over that of a female’s. Due to this gender dominance, many Saudi women are treated “like legal minors who are entitled to little authority over their own lives and well-being.”[iv] Such female segregation brews within the many factors that attribute toward the Kingdom’s all-encompassing male guardianship system. One of the most obvious and detrimental ways in which a woman’s power is overshadowed by that of a mans, is vis-à-vis the implementation of female segregated driving laws, which prohibit women from driving vehicles of any sort.
“No country restricts the movement of its female population more than the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”[v] One of the main methods of gaining movement, and thus freedom and a healthy well being, is via transportation. “Saudi Arabia remains the only country in the world that prohibits women from driving.”[vi] By denying women the right to independently drive a vehicle, United Nations member state Saudi Arabia is disobeying Article13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states, “everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.”[vii] The fact that women are completely dependent on men to chauffeur them around, “combined with limited affordable and accessible public transportation options prevent the Kingdom’s women from fully participating in public life.”[viii] Thus, one of the main determining factors that judge the level of involvement women have in communal life, is the availability and willingness of male drivers. Saudi men must drive their women everywhere; “To school. To work. To the hospital. To the hairdresser. To the library. To job interviews. To the mall.”[ix]
The Kingdom’s anti-female driving restrictions all began on November 6th 1990,[x] when 47 Saudi women sought to defy the “convention prohibiting women from driving by forming a convoy of cars,”[xi] and driving them in through the capital city of Riyadh. As a result of the promiscuity and disobedience shown by these protesting women, Saudi government officials “placed the women under house arrest, confiscated their passports, and released them from their jobs.”[xii] The transformation of “unwritten social convention into a formal law”[xiii] was made legal by a Fatwa, issued by the Council of Senior Ulama, which states that “women driving leads to many evils and negative consequences. Included among these is her mixing with men without her being on her guard.”[xiv] Permitting women to drive “will make dating more accessible”[xv] and “subject her to give up the veil or mix with strange men, such as workers at gas stations or security men at checkpoints. Women, by nature, cannot cope with such hard work.”[xvi] Extending these ideas, Islamic scholar Sheikh Ayed Al-Qarni does not see women driving in Saudi Arabia because of consequences such as the “spread of corruption, women uncovering their hair and faces, mingling between the sexes, men being alone with women and the destruction of the family and society in whole.”[xvii] These notions can be reinterpreted and understood though Dr. Fawzia Al-Bakr’s observation of gender stereotypes, which through the eyes of men, classify women as “being mentally deficient and incapable of controlling themselves, and caused women to see men as a superior rational being, capable of taking the right decisions because women are seen as emotionally incapable.’[xviii]
Various examples of gender segregation prove how the much-respected religion of Islam and the holy land of Saudi Arabia are being reused and resurfaced to justify the immobility of Saudi women. These laws not only blame the victim, but also further distance, humiliate and silence women. A Saudi woman was quoted saying that we are “told we are a special people, that we are the cradle of Islam, that the truth is ours and ours alone, that we are the saved set of Islam. When we demand that women be allowed to drive, they say: ‘No, we are a special people.’ No, we are not. In what way are we special? How come Saudis have a monopoly on Islam? Are Saudis the only Muslims?”[xix] Islam is practiced globally, not only in Saudi, and due to this fact, such religious excuses are not easily accepted. Al-Qarni notes that “the issue of women not driving cars is not considered to be one of the basics of our religion”[xx] and scholars and religious figures Abdel-Mohsin al-Obaika and Mohsin Awaji agree that “in principle, Islamic law does not prevent women driving.”[xxi] Falsified religious excuses lead many Saudis from within, and internationals looking in, to agree that “religion can not be justified as the reasoning why women are not allowed to drive; no one claims the ban is Islamic.”[xxii] A further point that proves this law is not Islamic in nature, is understanding the common knowledge that allowing taxi drivers and hired drivers, whom are “non-relatives drive Saudi women [is] incompatible with Islamic teachings.”[xxiii]
During the days of the Prophet, “women rode their horses and camels”[xxiv] and “Bedouin women in the desert openly drove pickup trucks far from the public eye.”[xxv] In modern day Saudi Arabia women are not allowed to mobilize a vehicle on the ground, but are permitted to fly a plane in the air. This somewhat backwards evolvement of women’s transportation and mobilization rights is a positive step forward for the Kingdom. It was reported that in 2004, a 26 year old Saudi woman was to sign a contract with Saudi Prince Al-Walid Bin Talal, to become a pilot. He proudly paid for the woman’s schooling in Jordan, holding firm to his belief that “recruiting Captain Hindi as a pilot is a major step in the employment of women and in their more active participation in Saudi society.”[xxvi] Pushing along with more power to the pedal, women are also allowed to show and sell cars. Women have earned respected employment positions within the world of automobiles, working in car dealerships. “Saudi women still can’t drive cars, but they can sell them. Potential buyers can go to an all-women showroom where, for the first time, other women will help them choose a car and answer questions about horsepower, carburetors and other automotive features.”[xxvii] However, with every push forward in the Kingdom, there always seems to be a drawback. Surprisingly, sometimes it is the educated and employed women who question their own advancements.
Widad Merdad, a Saudi showroom saleswoman, states “I don’t support women driving even if a permission is given for them to do so, because the society is not prepared for such a step.”[xxviii] This comment feeds the notion that “in the case of Saudi society, they draw their strength from weakness of women too. Women choose to be weak because it makes their lives easier. The weaker the wife is, the stronger the husband feels.”[xxix] Women’s roles as potential pilots and in the car showrooms, married with Merdad’s statement, prove that “for every step forward, women suffer other setbacks.”[xxx] The setbacks and discrimination women face in relation to transportation and mobilization, among many other freedoms, prove that Saudi women often live in a world of doubt. Al-Bakr was one of the 47 women who drove her car in protest in November 1990. She sheds light on how women are negatively affected by Saudi laws, in particular, the law that bans women from driving. Simply stated, Al-Bakr communicates, “our life has been stolen from us.”[xxxi] Sadness lies in the quote that was verbalized by a Saudi woman, whose personal pride has been stripped by the state; “I’m not proud to be a Saudi woman. Why would I be proud of a country that is not proud of me?”[xxxii]
Proud and youthful 24 year old Saudi woman Areej started We The Women, a website campaign that fights for the female right to drive. Areej’s inspiration came from “seeing how her retired father spent so much time chauffeuring the women in her family.”[xxxiii] The campaign, which also has an active Facebook account, is famous for their bumper stickers, which proudly caption slogans such as “It is my natural right to move freely and flexibly in my environment,”[xxxiv] “Driving shouldn’t even be an issue”[xxxv] and “I don’t like the backseat!”[xxxvi] It is women like Areej who can help turn around and influence the Kingdom’s negative and discriminatory gender ideologies. In order to change Merdad’s mind set, the Saudi government needs to sensitively recognize the social, politically and emotional damage such laws are having on the Kingdom’s very capable, but unjustly treated women.
“Women are critical to good governance [and] focusing on women is often the best way to encourage grassroots democracy.”[xxxvii] The Islamic Kingdom seems to be taking significant steps forward in the democratization of mobilization, allowing women to drive planes and work in auto shops, but there is certainly more that can be done. According to Human Rights Watch, Saudi Arabia could work towards eliminating “any restrictions on female driving in the kingdom, ensuring that women are afforded the same opportunities to drive and acquire a driver’s license as men. The ministry should also approve a system of public transportation for women who cannot afford a car or driver.”[xxxviii] These practical recommendations, if adopted, will help solve employment issues that haunt businesswomen on a daily basis.
A businesswoman told Human Rights Watch that she would “always hire a man over a woman; for the woman, I have to figure out how she’s going to come into work every morning.”[xxxix] This same business women noted that she must “raise the salaries of her female employees to compensate for their transportation costs… otherwise her salary will go solely to pay for transportation.”[xl] Many Saudi families have drivers, who come the reasonable cost of “$186 to $266 a month. But thousands of others cannot afford a chauffeur, who also requires room and board.”[xli] In these cases, women have the option of taking taxis, but many opt not too because it can often be unsafe.
Lifting this anti-driving ban will not only be liberating for women, but a relief for men alike. Waiting patiently for his sisters while they shopped the isles of Ikea, Faisal Auda admitted he “wouldn’t do this every day in the week.”[xlii] He brings books in his car to read while waiting for his mother and three younger sisters, whom he is solely responsibly for chauffeuring around, while they do errands. He wishes his mother could drive, to help alleviate the stress he is boggled with. Auda goes on to explain how tiresome weddings can be; “you have to take the dresses from the dry cleaners. You have to get the gifts, pick up the hairdresser for the girls. Drive the hairdresser back. Sometimes, for example, there is a hairdresser working at home on five women, and there is another five who want to go to salons.”[xliii]
In the working world, Saudi’s anti-female driving laws seem unpractical and inconvenient. In all aspects of female personal and public life in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, depending on one’s father, brother, uncle or husband to drive one everywhere she needs to go is “not a luxury; it’s one of the basic needs of life.”[xliv] In reconsidering the anti-female driving bans, “King Abdullah has said he would be in favor of lifting this ban if society accepts it.”[xlv] In 2005, the King foresaw a future when Saudi women would be legally able to drive; “In time, I believe it will be possible. And I believe patience is a virtue.”[xlvi] A few years later in 2007, “more than 125 women signed and sent a petition to Saudi Interior Minister Nayef bin Abdul Aziz, asking that the ban on women driving in the kingdom to be overturned.”[xlvii]
In petition, Wajeha Al Huwaider “posted a video of herself driving on YouTube in an effort to urge the Saudi government to expand the rights of women to drive in Saudi cities.”[xlviii] Huwaider’s video of protest proves the great lengths women are willing to go, in order to have their voices heard. The deprivation Saudi women seek from not being able to drive, drives them to rebel. An article published by Gulf News in 2008 cites “the fist incident of its kind”[xlix] in Saudi Arabia; the death of a 20-year-old woman who secretly took her brother’s Nissan Maxima out on the road and consequently died due to an accident she got into on Shaikh Jaber Street and King Abdullah Road. In continuing with women who drive regardless of the law; “despite the ban, there have been cases of women driving in rural and desert areas to buy supplies for their homes or help with farming activities.”[l]
In this male dominated Kingdom, lets hope that women soon seek a day where they can, equal to their male counterparts, legally get behind the wheel and drive on the open road. Until this day comes, rather than drowning in sorrow, some Saudi’s choose to make light of this unfair law, by watching episodes of Saudi television shows “Tash Ma Tash” (“No Big Deal”) and “Amsha Bint Amash” (“Amsha, Daughter of Amash”).[li] Another hopeful, but less comedic way to keep optimistic, is to look at Saudi’s past and all the illegal activities it has since legalized. Television producer Mr.Sadhan keeps the hopes up that one day Saudi women will be able to drive. “Fifty years ago, we rejected the mail and then we advanced. We refused radio, only to accept it, and then rejected TV, and only to accept that, too. We will accept women driving some day all the same, and the environment has to be prepared for it.”[lii]
Bio: Jaclyn Nardone is an MA candidate at the University for Peace and a regular contributor to the Peace and Conflict Monitor.