Saudi Arabian Women Hit the Road

The kingdom of Saudi Arabia, ruled by an absolute monarchy in cooperation with the vicious and medieval Wahhabist clerics, has some of the most oppressive and primitive laws in the world when it comes to the rights of women. Saudi women are forbidden to appear in public without a face-covering veil and a full-body shroud; they’re forbidden to travel, get an education or even leave their house without the permission of a male guardian; and they’re forbidden to mingle with unrelated men in public or in private, an unsubtle form of gender apartheid. Beaches, parks, restaurants, businesses and homes all have physically separate entrances for men and women and sex-segregated areas within to comply with these laws.

In her book Infidel, Ayaan Hirsi Ali writes about her childhood, part of which she spent in Saudi Arabia when her father was in exile from Somalia; one of the most searing passages was when she wrote about how, at night, she could hear the screams of women in neighboring houses who were being beaten by their husbands. And then there’s the infamous 2002 incident where the Saudi religious police, the mutaween, forced schoolgirls back into a burning building because they weren’t properly dressed and veiled to appear in public.

But out of all these laws, the one that seems most pointless, even by Saudi Arabia’s own sharia-based standard, is the one that forbids women from driving. That’s why I was encouraged to hear that a few brave women are planning to defy it:

Manal and 10 other people are organizing a campaign on Facebook and Twitter urging Saudi women with international driver’s licenses to join them starting June 17, risking their jobs and their freedom. The coordinated plan isn’t a protest, she said.

“I’m doing it because I’m frustrated, angry and mad,” Manal, who asked to be identified only by her first name, said in an interview from the eastern city of Dhahran. “It’s 2011 and we’re still discussing this insignificant right for women.”

…The campaign has received the support of some Saudi men. Ahmad al-Yacoub, 24, a Dhahran-based businessman, said he’s joined the effort because “these ladies are not fighting with religion or the government.”

“They are asking for a simple right that they want to practice freely without being harassed or questioned,” al-Yacoub said.

I’d hoped that the democratic revolution sweeping the Middle East would have spread to Saudi Arabia next, but so far, that hasn’t happened. This is trivial in comparison, but in a country as oppressive and benighted as this, even a tiny glimmer of resistance is an achievement worth noticing. The protest itself probably won’t accomplish anything, but far more important is the recognition among Saudi women that they’re being denied freedoms that are theirs by right. That’s a spark that’s ignited revolutions in other countries, and if it lands on dry tinder, it can happen again – and when it comes to human rights, what place is drier than Saudi Arabia?

The reporter who wrote this article felt the need to contact one of Saudi Arabia’s human-hating theocratic clerics for comment, who obliged by describing the evils that will happen if this protest succeeds:

The plan is “against the law, and the women who drive should be punished according to the law,” al-Nujaimi said in a telephone interview. Driving causes “more harm than good” to women, because they risk mixing with men they aren’t related to, such as mechanics and gas-station attendants, he added.

“Women will also get used to leaving their homes at will,” al-Nujaimi said.

The Wahhabist complaint boils down to this: “If women demand that we stop oppressing them, we may have to stop oppressing them!” It should be no surprise that this is the best reasoning they can come up with to justify centuries of religious bigotry and misogyny.

On a related note, here’s an e-mail I’m still thinking about:

Hello, my name is [omitted] and I am a Internet marketing professional. I had done a Google search under the keyword burqa store and had run across your website I see that you are not listed on the first page of Google for your particular search.

…I didn’t send this email out to very many people but I do favor your website because I can see your website monetizing the targeted website traffic for the keyword burqa store can deliver.

I have to admit, I’d never have imagined that the target demographic for burqa buyers has such a large overlap with the readership of Daylight Atheism. I guess that’s why we have Internet marketing professionals!

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About Adam Lee

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  • Sharmin

    It’s a small step, but the fight for equal rights has to start somewhere.
    -Ani Sharmin

  • gkdada

    I have used [omitted]. [omitted] is a dedicated, highly qualified marketing professional and comes highly recommended. Unlike other professionals who work with internet, [omitted] works with Internet!

  • Entomologista

    There are always faculty positions at King Misogynist University in Saudi Arabia advertised in the Chronicle of Higher Education. I sort of wonder why they bother advertising, because nobody actually wants to live in their theocratic desert shithole.

  • anna

    If wikipedia can be trusted, the driving ban is especially bad because “It is technically forbidden, but unenforced, for women to take taxis or hire private drivers, as it results in khalwa (illegal mixing with a non-mahram man). Women have limited access to bus and train services. Where it is allowed, they must use a separate entrance and sit in a back section reserved for women. But the bus companies with the widest coverage in Riyadh and Jeddah do not allow women at all.” This won’t be the first protest of the driving ban, however. Advocates for the right of women to drive in Saudi Arabia collected about 1,000 signatures in 2008, hoping to persuade King Abdullah to lift the ban. On International Women’s Day 2008 Saudi feminist activist Wajeha al-Huwaider posted a youtube video of herself driving in a rural area, and requesting a universal right for women to drive.

  • Penguin_Factory

    Women will also get used to leaving their homes at will

    God help us all!

    I hope the stupid twat gets run over next time he steps out of the house.

  • Nathaniel

    Next thing you know, they might think they got the right to vote or even… shudder… date and mate who they want!

    Won’t someone think of the children?

  • Nick

    Maybe you should take that marketer up on his offer. I’d love for a site advocating skepticism, critical thinking, and secularism to be the first hit when people go searching for the tools of religious oppression.

  • kennypo65

    Mysogyny seems, in my opinion, to stem from a male fear of sexual inadequacy. If my theory is correct, then Saudi men must have the smallest peckers in the world.

  • NoAstronomer

    “I’d hoped that the democratic revolution sweeping the Middle East would have spread to Saudi Arabia next…”

    That was always unlikely because the revolutions have primarily been driven by poor economic conditions not a lack of representation. Saudi’s, being quite well off, are not as inclined to demonstrate. After all if people are living well then they tend not to notice they’re living in an oppressive society.

    Unfortunately (deliberately?) The overall restrictions on women in Saudi society work to keep them disunited.

  • Tommykey

    I can just picture it. Some puritanical Muslim men will stage car accidents and try to use it as evidence that it is too dangerous to let Saudi women drive.

  • unintentionalhypocrite

    I’m told that people in Bahrain refer to Saudi Arabia (which is a short stretch across the sea from Bahrain) as “the Dark Side”. I wonder why. (Not that Bahrain has the most impeccable human rights record, but compared to Saudi Arabia it’s an oasis of liberalism).

  • kagerato

    Sometimes it’s hard to know what to say when we’re talking about monarchies in the year 2011. Then I remember that American women didn’t have the right to vote until 1920.

    Somehow, I don’t feel like ending the monarchy is really going to accomplish much. With the country as it is, it looks like it will just end up being replaced by a theocracy. Maybe if a new reform-minded king were to come to power, the monarchy and the theocracy could fight to the death. Then again, opening up huge power vacuums has some seriously ugly consequences, too.

  • Tommykey

    Then I remember that American women didn’t have the right to vote until 1920.

    Kagerato, while the 19th amendment was not ratified until 1920, a number of states gave women the vote in the years before then, with some states such as Wyoming having granted women’s suffrage several decades earlier. Jeannette Rankin of Montana was the first woman elected to the US House of Representatives in 1916, 4 years before the 19th amendment was ratified.

  • Samuel

    On the other hand Swiss women got the vote in 1971. They were finally forced to due to pressure from the rest of Europe. It finally became nationwide in… 1990.

  • kagerato

    Kagerato, while the 19th amendment was not ratified until 1920, a number of states gave women the vote in the years before then, with some states such as Wyoming having granted women’s suffrage several decades earlier.

    Correct, although Wyoming was joined by only a few other states in terms of “decades”. Colorado in 1893 plus Utah and Idaho in 1896. (The next was Washington in 1910.)

    Historians have given a rather surprisingly varied set of reasons for why Wyoming was so far ahead (fifty years) of the rest of the country. Most of them, however, have some connection to the fact that the territorial population was relatively small. Such conditions are more favorable to the development of women having significant civic involvement, sometimes out of necessity.

    One interesting part about Wyoming’s suffrage development: roughly two-thirds of men passed the state constitution that permanently enshrined the suffrage provisions for the new state. This is important because even though women had territorial voting rights at the time, they still had no say in federal issues (which includes, of course, the introduction of new states). This is even more interesting as some in the U.S. Congress were actually threatening to deny the state entry into the union if the state constitution were to retain suffrage provisions.

    One other note of interest: the actual 19th amendment, as it was ultimately passed, was first introduced in the U.S. House in 1878. It’s very clear that some people were quite literally generations ahead of others on the issue.

  • Caitlin

    I believe that one of the factors leading to the oppression of women in Saudi Arabia is polygamy. A man in Saudi Arabia can have up to four wives in accordance with Sharia. In a country with a sex ratio of 1 to 1, for every man with four wives there are three men with no wives. In Saudi Arabia, where the male-to-female ratio in the age 15 to 64 group is 1.27 to 1 (, the problem is even more intense. A man who wants to ensure his wife’s fidelity is not going to want her driving around, potentially meeting single men when he’s not there; and with four wives to keep track of, he will have even more concerns about their whereabouts.

    There are some who have argued that polygamy actually improves women’s rights. Steven Landsburg (Chapter 17 of The Armchair Economist and has argued in favor of legalizing polygamy in the United States. Landsburg believes that this would actually improve women’s rights because it would create a free market for marriage. However, I believe Landsburg is overlooking the way polygamy incentivizes men to keep their wives tucked away from the world, thus preventing a free market from ever forming. In order for such a free market for marriage to exist, women would need to be able to choose their partners freely, get a divorce without any hurdles, and remarry as they choose. They would also need to live in a society in which they did not have to fear domestic violence, which could otherwise prevent them from leaving unjust husbands for fear of retaliation. Because in each of these regards, polygamous societies are on average much worse than monogamous societies, I have to question the theory that legalizing polygamy in the United States will usher in an era of greater women’s rights.

    If anyone can point out a single polygamous society in which women have equal rights to men, I would love to hear about it. If anyone can so much as point out a polygamous society in which women choose their partners freely, divorce, and remarry without major legal or social opposition, I would also love to hear about it. Until then, I’m inclined to believe that where polygamy is legal, women’s rights will suffer.

  • kagerato

    Historical polygamy has mostly been a reflection of substantially greater economic power being leveraged by men. Most women marry into such arrangements in an attempt to improve their own status, and because they see insufficient opportunities for advancement elsewhere. These marriages of necessity are often doomed to unhappiness from the start. It seems very unlikely you will ever find a polygamous society in which the genders are equal so long as the economic reality is distorted in favor of men.

    I don’t see most first world nations as being comparable to Saudi Arabia on the matters of liberalized marriage, divorce, partner selection, domestic violence, and so on. The poor conditions of any country shouldn’t be used against a different country in any argument, either way.

    While reducing a wife’s mobility may have something to do with fidelity, or at least that may be a surface justification given in some contexts, I’m reasonably sure that the real cause behind preventing women from driving is to prevent them from accumulating political and economic power. When women can meet and gather freely (even from far distances), they may start to form political movements. They’ll acquire jobs and opportunities they didn’t have before. That’s what the real fear is, and to some extent the fidelity line is just a post-hoc religious justification for the oppression. (Of course some wives will cheat on their husbands, but that has nothing to do with gender.)

    In any case, legalizing polygamy and/or polyandry won’t do anything to directly improve the status of women. Marriage is just a tool subject to the whims of society and powerful individuals. Changing the law in these simple ways doesn’t do much to affect that; what was once illegal will simply carry on legally (or vice-versa). The idea that human behavior is rapidly controlled by legal shifts is very, very dubious.

    All this doesn’t really have any effect on the main arguments in favor of polyamorous relationships, which are based on right of association and mutual consent. Economics and social equality are wholly tangential to that.

  • Tommykey

    It seems very unlikely you will ever find a polygamous society in which the genders are equal so long as the economic reality is distorted in favor of men.

    One of my favorite movies is the Chinese film Raise the Red Lantern. It’s set in the household of a wealthy Chinese man and Gong Li plays the 4th and newest of the wives. They all scheme against each other for the husband’s attention and Gong Li’s character goes so far as to fake a pregnancy. SPOILER ALERT! Besides having four wives, the husband also fools around with one of the domestic servants. But when the adultery of Wife #3 is found out (Wife #2 rats her out after Wife #4 mistakenly confides in her), Wife #3 is carried off and presumably murdered for her infidelity.

    The coda to the film shows the arrival of Wife #5, while Gong Li’s Wife #4 is shown to have gone insane.