You might have seen him on social media this week: a young, bearded Arab man in a flowing red-and-white keffiyeh, deftly mimicking Bob Marley's strained voice in "No Woman, No Cry" with slightly different lyrics. "No woman no drive," he sings, as his own swaying head and that of another identically clad man, propagate on screen to become a bearded back-up chorus. "Hey little sister don't touch that wheel," he sings, finger wagging.
Hisham Fageeh's music video, "No Woman No Drive" went viral on YouTube Saturday, the same day Saudi women climbed behind the wheel and took to the streets in protest against the country's long-standing ban on women drivers. Dozens posted YouTube videos of themselves cruising around town.
But Fageeh, a 26-year-old Saudi comedian and a graduate student in Columbia University's department of middle eastern studies, captured the most attention. His video has gotten nearly seven million hits on YouTube and may have done more than any other piece of media to remind the world of this anachronistic restriction faced by women in a nation that remains a close friend of the US.
The video, produced with YouTube sensations Fahad al-Butairi and Alaa Wardi, doesn't criticize Saudi policy directly, but it pokes fun at the broadly mocked argument that driving damages women's ovaries.
"Say I remember, when you used to sit in the family car, but backseat/ Ova-ovaries are safe and well, so you can make lots and lots of babies," he sings, as a clip shows a male gynecologist cautioning him, presumably, against allowing the women in his family to drive.
In the video's deadpan introduction, Fageeh describes himself as an "artist and social activist" who adapted the song to his culture. He told the BBC that he made the video "not aiming to do anything political, just to entertain."
“I think politics is the worst element in my field of study, but I am interested and fascinated by social politics," he told Arab News. "I decided to be an academic because I believe it is the only true course to control knowledge and change mindsets,” he said, adding, “I am currently writing about the elements of humor in politics and how they play a role in shaping perspectives and identities.”
Saudi stand-up comedy has surged in popularity over the last few years, especially with the rise of "On the Fly," which resembles Jon Stewart's The Daily Show but respects certain limitations. “It is really convenient for Saudi society because it is one person on stage," Ahmad Fathaldin, one of its creators, told The New York Times. "There is no acting, no women on stage, no men dressed as women.”
Women are also conspicuously absent from "No Woman, No Drive," a fact which the video's all-male gynecologist appointment seems itself to mock. And it was pointedly created without musical instruments, which some Muslims disapprove of; the well-produced musical arrangement combines whistling, singing, and even a snare-like beard-scratching.
The popularity of this video, and of fake news shows, points to the broad appeal of irony as a package for social critique. But it may also be the safest way for high-profile Saudis to support social reforms. Tariq al-Mubarak, a columnist for the pan-Arabic daily Asharq al-Awsat, was taken into custody Sunday by Saudi police for explicitly supporting an end to the ban on women drivers. According to Reuters, a column of his had criticized religious extremists for intimidating people out of exercising their rights. Freedoms, said al-Mubarak, "are not instilled in our culture, nor our interpretation of religion."
But many of the kingdom's gender-based restrictions reflect conservative taboos, rather than actual legislation. Government officials told Reuters the driving ban, which is not a written law, simply enforced the wishes of a conservative society. On Saturday there was a heavy police presence in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, and some women drivers were fined, but no arrests were made.