A Saudi sheikh's comment Friday that driving could negatively affect women's ovaries and create "clinical problems" in their children sparked a flurry of indignation on Twitter and elsewhere over the weekend.
The sheikh in question, Saleh al-Lohaidan, is a relatively low-profile judicial adviser to Gulf psychologists – not a prominent Islamic scholar, as was initially reported. But while his particular argument was quickly pounced on as ridiculous, there remains a deep-seated opposition to women driving among a conservative segment of Saudi society that cannot be as easily dismissed.
But there is also a growing cadre of civil-society activists and women’s rights advocates who are pushing back on such limits. A petition promoting the Oct. 26 protest on the female driving ban has garnered more than 12,000 hits, and may have had gotten a dramatic spike in support since Friday if it hadn’t been blocked in Saudi Arabia this weekend. Among its five points are a demand that the Saudi government make clear what the legal reason is for not allowing women to drive rather than just citing “societal consensus.”
But women’s rights advocates are running against pretty strong currents. A recent World Bank study ranked Saudi Arabia the worst country in the world for placing legal restrictions on women and failing to provide legal benefits, such as maternity leave. The Saudi government discriminates according to gender for a variety of activities, including traveling outside the country, getting a passport, obtaining a national identity card, and conferring citizenship on one’s children.
The more fundamental issue may be a mentality that proscribes certain activities for women as un-Islamic, culturally inappropriate, or both. @ThatSalafi, a Twitter feed satirizing conservative Muslim attitudes, poked fun at the fear that the right to drive could lead to a slippery slope of immoral behavior:
But some Saudis, women included, really do see a direct connection with social restrictions and women’s modesty. When I was in the kingdom in May 2012 with the International Reporting Project, I recall a gentleman earnestly defending the ban as necessary to protecting women’s modesty and safety. What would happen if a woman got in a car accident, he asked? Then she would be forced to deal with the male driver of the other car, a stranger, with no oversight – a problematic situation in a country where male guardianship of women is deeply entrenched.
As Caryle Murphy explained in a 2011 article on guardianship for the Monitor:
A woman is not legally independent under the guardianship system…. If unmarried, her father (or, if he is deceased, another male relative – usually a brother or uncle) must give permission for her to travel abroad, accept employment, get certain types of medical care, go to university, and, in many cases, conduct business in government offices. If she is married, her husband is her guardian.
While such a system would likely sound oppressive to most Western women, even some well-educated Saudi women who travel abroad feel more comfortable in this system than in the West. On the same trip last spring, I caught a ride home one night with a 20-something Saudi businesswoman who vacations in California with her family every summer. As a foreign driver whisked us past the palms and skyscrapers of Riyadh in her luxury car, she told me she prefers her long black abaya and headscarf to the jeans she wears in California, and appreciates the dating strictures in Saudi that require her family to be involved in her meetings with potential suitors.
But for her less wealthy fellow citizens, many simply can’t afford not to drive. With no public transportation, and drivers often costing as much as half of their monthly salary, women have a hard time earning a substantial income without being able to get themselves to work everyday.
Badria Al-Bishr, an award-winning Saudi columnist and novelist at King Saud University, highlighted a great example from the 13-minute Saudi movie “Scrap,” which was an entrant at the Gulf Film Festival this spring. Dr. Al-Bishr explains:
The Saudi movie “Scrap” … is based on the true story of a lady who was arrested by a traffic officer while driving her pickup. The officer found out that she was poor and that she supported herself by collecting scrap. So he escorted her to the police station and asked her: "Where is your guardian?" Her only reply was: "God is my guardian."