by Aryn Baker/Riyadh (original article here)
When Maha al-Qatani settles into the driver’s seat of her family’s baby blue humvee these days, she goes through a familiar routine: a glance in the rearview mirror to ensure that her headscarf and face veil are on right; a whispered prayer; and a reassuring pat of her Coach handbag, stuffed with all the essentials for a possible prison stay — toothbrush, deodorant, comfortable clothes and prayer rug.
She may need them. On June 17, al-Qatani made history by becoming the first woman in Saudi Arabia to receive a traffic ticket. She sees it as a badge of honor, proving that she defied a prohibition on women driving in the kingdom and, she hopes, paving the way for more women to do the same. Still, the possibility of prison remains. “If no one sacrifices, no one will get their rights,” al-Qatani said on the day of her maiden drive in Saudi Arabia.
In one of the most peculiar revolts to have been inspired by the Arab uprisings, al-Qatani and dozens of other women have taken to the streets — not on foot but behind the wheel. They are leaving their drivers at home and heading out on their own to the grocery store or to the doctor or to pick up their kids from school. Those thankless errands may plague women around the world, but for some in Saudi Arabia they are a long-dreamed-of freedom. “What these women are doing is brave, and what they are seeking is right,” said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of the protests.
Saudi Arabia — with its vast, unpopulated deserts, low-slung architecture and cheap oil — is a country made for cars. The capital city, Riyadh, is bigger than Los Angeles and has no public-transportation system. So women rely on male family members to get around or hire immigrant drivers at considerable cost.
Reforms in the 1960s opened the way for female education; now women make up 58% of the university population. But that achievement is not matched in the workplace, where women account for less than 15% of the labor force, mostly in the education and medical sectors. The government is urging private businesses to hire more women — under conditions designed to prevent mixing between unrelated men and women — but it is hard to see how that will happen if they can’t drive to work. Many middle-class families see little incentive to let their daughters and wives work if they end up spending their salaries on drivers. Architect Nadia Bakhurji estimates that she spends an extra 25% in overhead just providing cars and drivers for the female staff at her firm. It’s a sacrifice she is willing to make, she says, but in most other businesses, “it becomes a barrier to hiring women.”
Despite repeated promises of change — most famously in 2005, when King Abdullah told Barbara Walters on ABC TV, “I believe the day will come when women drive” — Saudi Arabia remains the only country in the world where women are officially barred from getting behind the wheel. Why? “There is nothing in the Koran that prohibits a woman from driving,” admits Sheik Abdallah al-Oweardi, a self-described moderate religious scholar. At least two of the Prophet Muhammad’s wives are known to have ridden camels. But in religious rulings, conservative clerics have argued that driving allows women too much freedom and might lead to illicit mixing of the sexes. Says al-Oweardi: “This is to protect our women from harassment and to protect society from the problems you see in the West — single mothers and illegitimate children — that come from unconditional relations between men and women.” When I asked him what a conservative scholar might say, he laughed and said none would ever meet with a female U.S. journalist.
The law is enforced. When Manal al-Sharif, a divorced mother of two, posted on YouTube a video of herself driving in May, she was detained for nine days. That dampened support for the movement, and since June 17, the campaign’s official launch date, only a few dozen Saudi women have driven, even as thousands of supporters worldwide have posted videos of themselves honking their horns in solidarity.
In fact, while the women’s campaign to drive may have friends abroad, in Saudi Arabia it has proved deeply divisive. Women’s-rights activists are conflicted over the impact of acts of civil disobedience in a society uncomfortable not only with dissent but also with women in the public eye. The modern nation of Saudi Arabia has emerged only recently from an intensely conservative Bedouin culture that traditionally kept female family members concealed within the home. When the country started urbanizing in the 1960s, women adapted by wearing the face-covering niqab in public. While more-liberal women may now show their faces, the majority of the population continues to cover up out of modesty. So the sight of Saudi women on YouTube has been too much for some to bear. “This kind of activity is not part of our culture,” says al-Oweardi. Many Saudi women, whose families are wealthy enough to afford drivers, don’t see driving as a priority. “We are our own worst enemy in terms of emancipation,” says Riam Darwish. She supports women’s right to drive but says she won’t join the protest. “If I get caught, it could harm my family. I have too much to lose.” Paradoxically, the women who would benefit the most from being able to drive are members of the more conservative lower classes. “The actual change in driving will have to come from the women who can’t afford drivers,” says Darwish. “But they are the ones who believe that women shouldn’t drive the most.”
The King, for his part, has declared driving by women a “social” issue and has said it is up to the public to decide what to do about it. But there is no clarity on how the public could do so: while municipal councils are now elected (though women still can’t vote), there is no space for Saudis to weigh in on national issues like driving. Some right-to-drive campaigners, fearing that the majority is against the idea, would rather see a royal decree like the one the King’s half brother King Faisal issued in the 1960s, declaring that girls could go to school. Some observers say King Abdullah is waiting before he tackles a subject considered toxic to conservative clerics. “I do think he wants the same thing we want,” says Princess Ameerah al-Taweel, vice president of the Alwaleed Bin Talal Foundation, which focuses in part on women’s advancement. “He is for women’s empowerment.”
This year’s protests are not the first. In 1990, 47 women drove through Riyadh in a formal demonstration. They were all arrested, they all lost their jobs, and they — and their husbands — were barred for a year from leaving the kingdom. To this day, the Drivers, as they are known, face discrimination. Some argue that the protest set the women’s movement back, forcing the clergy to issue religious rulings condemning driving that were then codified into government edicts. “We need evolution, not revolution,” says the princess, who supports the initiative but doesn’t think the protest should be confrontational.
Conservatives and campaigners for the right to drive would at least agree on this: Allowing women to drive is about more than getting from point A to point B. It’s a symbol of more profound changes that could fundamentally alter Saudi society. For conservatives, who believe it is ordained by God that women stay in the home and take care of the family, it means a loss of control over women’s lives and the acceptance of their greater independence. For some women’s-rights campaigners, driving is a stepping-stone to other freedoms.
At present, Saudi women cannot leave the country without permission from a male guardian. They cannot take out loans without having two men vouch for their identity, even if they carry government-issued IDs. Custody laws automatically favor the father. Tackling those issues is far more difficult than taking on the prohibition on driving, says Fawzia al-Bakr, one of the original Drivers in 1990. “Driving means access, mobility and empowerment, and from there we can chip away at the bigger issues,” she says. “If we can drive, anything is possible.”
Not all activists agree. “The domino effect doesn’t work in Saudi Arabia,” says Muna AbuSulayman, who recently gave a talk at a forum on women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. She fears that allowing women to drive would simply become a sop to the demands of Western governments and Saudi liberals without fundamentally altering women’s role in society. “You have to wonder, What’s the point of being able to drive if you can’t leave the country on your own? Women in many instances are treated like second-class citizens, children almost. All these core issues have to be dealt with first. And if we check the driving box off, they won’t be.”
A better solution, says Najla Hariri, an unassuming housewife in Jidda, on the country’s west coast, is to stop making a fuss. Her husband, a pilot, is often away. And if the family driver doesn’t turn up for work, she takes the car keys. She doesn’t see herself as particularly brave or heroic. “I am just a mother taking my kids to school. I am not trying to challenge the government,” she says with a shrug. “I just got tired of waiting.”
Social change, Hariri seems to be saying, doesn’t always have to come from campaigns or conflict. Sometimes it creeps in when one woman decides to do something without asking for permission. Or when another gets a traffic ticket instead of a prison sentence.
How do you feel about the status of women in Saudi Arabia? Why do you think it has persisted in this state?
The reading also discusses the difficulties with trying to campaign and protests for women’s rights. How do you think progress for women could then come about?