It’s Not The Law, But You Really Shouldn’t Drive, Miss

Saudi Citizen Manal al-Sharif Driving in Saudi Arabia

The western media seems to have a field day with reports of Muslim peoples’ and Islam’s “repression” of women. It’s often overstated or even completely fabricated, but some of Saudi Arabia’s cultural practices and laws are clear examples of plain and simple repression of women.

Although nowhere in the Qur’an does it speak of women’s being prevented from operating any sort of transportation, the Saudi Government has never allowed women to drive within the country. The mobility of women is strictly controlled and limited to specific public and private spaces, and the inability to drive is symbolic of this reality. It’s ironic that a woman may hire a taxi, driven by a male stranger, but is not able to drive herself.

In May of this year, Manal Al-Sharif and her friend disobeyed Saudi law and drove around town in Al-Sharif’s car, unaccompanied by any male relative or family member. You can view her video here, where she and her friend discuss the plight of not being allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. Being a single mother, Al-Sharif finds it even more challenging.

Some have responded to the fervent opposition to strict Saudi laws against women’s driving by noting that while these legal requirements may not be grounded in Islamic law (note that there weren’t any cars in the 8th century, and there aren’t any Qur’anic verses that pertain to women not being allowed to steer camels, bullock carts, etc.), they derive from old cultural customs, and should therefore be respected. My response to the cultural sensitivity argument is this: respecting differences and tradition is one thing, but when a society systematically restricts the mobility, thoughts, or safety of a particular group of people, it’s wrong. And Saudi Arabia isn’t the only place where women face significant barriers.

In some of India’s northern states and other regions of South Asia, “honor killings” of women are not entirely uncommon, and justified through cultural customs. In the state of Harayana, for example, there are a mere 88 women for every 100 men according to the recent 2011 census, reflecting the large numbers of female infanticides that directly stem from the lower status women hold in that culture. The important message, however, is that while “honor killings” of women, once widespread throughout South Asia, remain a serious problem, the issue has been addressed head-on by many Indian cultures. As an example, the reformist efforts of Bengali activists during the early 20th century resulted in a virtual elimination of the age-old practice.

The repression of women may be conducted in the name of Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, or any other religious, political, or economic ideology. Under closer examination, one will unsurprisingly find that the rules, laws, and norms of the repression of women anywhere are based upon a power structure created for personal gain, not for the purposes of spiritual attainment. Religious and cultural customs certainly differ regarding gender norms and disagreement is inevitable, however, societies must draw a line, illuminating the true intent of such laws.

Following an Inside Islam book event earlier this year, a Muslim graduate student approached me and spoke to me about his disappointment with the negative tone that surrounded discussions related to Gulf countries and Saudi Arabia specifically. I wished that he had raised his voice during the discussion; however, he told me that he was afraid that he would be silenced by the audience, as he feels unsafe sharing his thoughts in what he characterized to be a relatively hostile American atmosphere towards Saudi Arabia. He recommended that we also discuss the positive aspects of Saudi culture and educate Americans about the incredible hospitality shown towards guests that has characterized the region for centuries. Inside Islam will feature more pieces soon on the Gulf region, highlighting the great diversity of Islam and Muslims living there, but that does not mean that one should turn away from the negative events and realities of the region. Having never traveled to Saudi Arabia myself, I remain naive and ignorant to many of the beautiful aspects of the country, but it’s hard not to criticize some of the appalling human rights abuses that take place.

Saudi Arabia has a long history of denying women the right to drive. In 1990, Saudi authorities jailed and confiscated the passports of dozens of women for driving their cars around Riyadh. Some of them even lost their jobs. In 2007, the Association for the Protection and Defense of Women’s Rights was founded by two Saudi women, and the indigenous movement for the right to drive has grown significantly. The United States and other western countries have been pointing out the discriminatory social norms of preventing women from driving in Saudi Arabia for years, but it is clear that the most effective and just approach to changes are coming from within. From a historical perspective, Saudi Arabian culture has undergone rapid social change in the last decade, and it will be the voices of Manal Al-Sharif and others who will continue to shape Saudi society.

I clearly argue that it is morally wrong to prevent women from having the right to drive, but are there reasons that I am missing as to why this social norm may in fact be advantageous for women living in Saudi Arabia? Does Manal Al-Sharif challenge your perceptions of Saudi women, and if so, in what way? Will Al-Sharif’s actions this past summer spark other gender-related activism in the Gulf region? Please share your comments below.

2 thoughts on “It’s Not The Law, But You Really Shouldn’t Drive, Miss

  1. Marhaba,

    Manal al-Sharif is a hint of what’s to come. It’s interesting that no one comments anymore about male Saudis wearing Western jackets over their thobes.
    I lived for two years in Saudi Arabia working a 2-year contract under the Ministry of Petroleum and Minerals which then was in control of the University of Petroleum and Minerals in Dhahran where I taught and directed a two-track English program. I believe the university has since been renamed King Fahd University.
    Having no corporate buffer between me and the Saudi ministry, I daily came into direct contact with Saudi staff and officials. In addition, my students were from many other countries besides Saudi Arabia, so I was introduced to a great many perspectives on Islam as well as Islamic perspectives on the rest of the world, especially the West.
    These contacts and interactions taught me a great deal about the attitudes and beliefs of Saudis and Muslims from other cultures.
    Regarding women in particular, I only learned from hearsay about some of their behaviors and attitudes. I know that even in the mid-seventies, young Saudi women, especially educated and wealthy/royal women, would routinely drive while dressed in male attire. It was a well-known but little discussed fact which brought disapproving reactions from some of my students, but not all. Most showed no reaction at all out of concern for their personal well-being.
    These experiences gave me a deep appreciation of the Saudi people and their conflicted lives as they tried to practice their beliefs in an ever changing and challenging world. As a result, I have put a lot of effort in deepening my understanding of Muslims in the world by researching Islam and Islamic history.

    Ever since oil provided the Saudis with enough money to determine their destiny in the world, they had to pay the price of allowing Western culture into their society. King Faisal was a major force in
    guiding the Saudis into the twentieth century and accepting the technological products of the West. But these changes conflicted with basic Wahabi values and created many stresses, individually and socially. I empathized with Saudis I met who were struggling with these conflicts which often divided families and friends.

    Women driving is one of those conflicts which affects not just women but everyone else in their families as well as society as a whole. Islam, as I learned from my students, is a complete belief system, a community system involving everyone, a fact few people except Muslims appreciate.

    I enjoy your newsletters and find them stimulating. Thank you for addressing the issues so important to not just Muslims, but to all of us.

    Richard Naylor

  2. Somehow the women need to resist their control by men without putting themselves in jeopardy. It may mean an organized effort by some courageous women to drive in mass as a protest and with plenty of media coverage. Would that be possible in a country like Saudi Arabia or would it make these women subject to corporal punishment? Arab Spring isn’t comparable in terms of the scope of what was is being accomplished, but mass protest may be what it takes to make apply pressure for shifts in thinking and acceptance.