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 www.daylightatheism.org. 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

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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