Saudi Arabia is the land of immobile women.
No other nation prohibits women from driving or indeed moving in any capacity without male consent. As of today, Saudi women are protesting the kingdom’s driving ban from behind the wheel of their cars. These women unnerve the state, for while popular opinion is on their side, so, too, is Islam.
When I moved to Saudi Arabia to practice medicine from 1999-2001, I left my car in New York. For the first time, as a Muslim woman, Islam was now the basis for my confinement and not my freedom.
The Saudi driving prohibition was “cultural” until Nov. 6, 1990, when 47 veiled Saudi women defied the ban and drove in a 14-vehicle convoy on the King Abdul Aziz highway in Riyadh. They were inspired by American female GIs in their military vehicles during Desert Storm and by Kuwaiti women who had arrived in the kingdom as Saddam Hussein attacked Kuwait.
For their insurrection, these women were arrested, jailed for several hours, and their passports confiscated. They were summarily dismissed from their jobs and banned from traveling overseas for one year. Soon after, Saudi authorities issued explicit fatwas, or religious edicts, banning driving by women.
Ironically, the ban is particularly problematic for an Islamic monarchy since it is fundamentally unIslamic. Muslim women lacking male relatives have been making solo pilgrimages to Mecca for centuries without restriction. Their journeys reflect Islam’s recognition of their rights as individuals.
Islam gives women freedom
One need only look at the very genesis of Islam – the ayyam-al Sahaba (the days of the companions of the Prophet Muhammad) – for evidence of women’s freedom of agency. Early Muslim feminists are role models that every faith-literate Muslim holds dear. The most preeminent, Khadija, the first Muslim and the first wife of the prophet, and Aisha, the prophet’s later wife, are canonized in Islamic history.
Khadija, a wealthy merchant woman, was at first Muhammad’s employer, and later (through a trusted intermediary) she offered him a proposal of marriage. She continued her business dealings after marriage and is considered the archetypal Muslim female entrepreneur. Khadija exemplifies the possibility of economic gender equality within Islam, and as a merchant she traveled frequently and independently.
Aisha was famed for her autonomy, knowledge, and exceptional leadership which would fully blossom during her widowhood. The prophet himself recognized her scholarship publicly: “Learn half your religion from that red-headed one!”
Both women are counted among Islam’s most esteemed as the Umm-al-Momeneen – Mothers of the Faithful. These women are seen as trustees of the entire Muslim flock.
Both are clearly depicted in Islamic writings conducting their business, whether trade or education, independently. Both have been documented to be riding camels and horses as a means to complete their activities. Both operated outside their homes in workplaces at a time when Arabia was agrarian and pastoral and allowed women’s roles to span home and work.
Islam does not prohibit women from driving, moving in public spaces, or exercising their own agency. Saudis know this. Further, Saudis know what I, as a Muslim woman, know: Islam particularly safeguards the autonomy of womanhood through preserving financial independence of women, their ownership of properties, their right to inheritance, to vote, to divorce, and to marry or refuse marriage. Examining the modern Muslim world however, one struggles to find evidence of these rights.
Immobilizing women for political purposes
Political conservatives practicing brands of contemporary radical Islamist values back the literal immobilization of woman for explicitly political purposes – to preserve male power and advantage. But disempowering women hurts Islamic society by suppressing the potential of half the population. The driving ban itself harms Saudi Arabia – including men, many of whom decry the ruling.
Families must have one car for the husband and one for the wife. They must employ expatriate drivers and provide them salary, housing, healthcare, and immigration. Between 800,000 and 1 million foreign drivers go toward supporting this ideology, an enormous burden on a state already lacking in employment opportunities and straining to provide welfare for its growing population.
Many Saudi families simply do not have the means, leaving women without public transport to hail cabs with questionable drivers at significant personal risk or remain stranded at home.
If only Saudi Arabia could conquer its own self-inflicted myopia toward women driving – and overcome many of the other disparities between men and women. Then energies could be directed at solving real challenges. Unfettered by artificial limitations, Saudi men and women could at last collaborate to meet the challenges of a fast approaching post-petrochemical era, for instance. Fully realized through the empowerment of its entire citizenry, Saudi Arabia could finally become a sobering compass of stability in a region of overt turmoil.
And ultimately, Saudi women could at last have a chance to be defined more by what they can do, than what they cannot. Saudi women are brave enough to act on this. The real question is whether their patriarchal authorities are equals in courage to the forebears of their own great faith.
Qanta A. Ahmed is the author of “In the Land of Invisible Women,” detailing her experience practicing medicine in Saudi Arabia. She is associate professor of medicine at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Stony Brook; honorary professor at Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland; and a 2010 Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science and Religion. Follow Dr. Ahmed on Facebook, Twitter (@MissDiagnosis), and her Huffington Post blog.