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.