Blogger’s note: I lived and worked in Saudi Arabia from 1982-88 and 2000-2011. Despite the very conservative, religious mileu of Saudi society and its structural subjugation of women, Saudis personally are unfailingly warm, generous and welcoming to outsiders.
All over Saudi Arabia now, conservative men (and even many who fancy themselves progressive) will feel a jolt of anxiety or even emasculating terror as their wives, daughters and sisters slide behind the steering wheels of sleek new cars and speed off to God knows where.
Certainly, they’re worried for women’s safety, as Saudi females are now legally allowed to grab the car keys and drive themselves for the first time ever in this arch-conservative Muslim country’s history.
But the men are far more worried about where their women will drive to, and what they might do when they get there, out of the sight and male control.
A cultural shift?
It may seem like a cultural paradigm shift, which it promises to be, but religion is the reason it took so very long to arrive in the first place — and why it may yet face an explosive backlash from men long accustomed to controlling every aspect of the lives of the kingdom’s women and girls. Saudi Arabia is the last country on earth to allow women driving privileges, because men were earth-tremblingly wary of handing the car keys over to whom they view as emotionally flighty, incompetent and irrational women.
Not only might women drivers cause all manner of car crashes and fatalities, their sensual, romantic natures would surely drive them straight to the homes and into the arms of illicit lovers. Which, of course, is what the men do every chance they get, when three or four legally authorized wives doesn’t offer enough variety.
So, women driving cars in Saudi Arabia is not just a practical issue. How will driver’s licenses be issued? What kind of driver’s training will be required? How will the government educate men to respect women drivers, when they’ve never before even seen them riding bikes or jogging in public. The authorities also need to manage public, mainly male, cultural and religious anxieties about how this scary new world will play out. They need to prepare for potential political fallout.
It’s indeed a wrenching change for a society hidebound since not long after the fall of the Roman Empire deep in antiquity. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, son of elderly King Salman and heir apparent of the throne, is employing a wrecking-ball approach to dragging his country into a more modernized future, which includes a projected workforce with 30 percent women. The crown prince believes women will be far more flexible, versatile and effective employees if they can drive themselves to work, wherever that might take them. And whenever.
Under men’s thumbs
Economically speaking, women driving is a no-brainer. Culturally, not so much. Keep in mind that the kingdom is not transforming wholesale regarding women. They are still very much under the patriarchal thumb, requiring male authorization (even from a minor son if no adult men are available) for obtaining loans, traveling abroad, even employment, and a host of other normal activities. And they have no political authority in the royal system, much less real power. And, of course, driving is a new privilege not a constitutional right, so it could be withdrawn in a nanosecond for any reason royal authorities deem fit.
Yet, it’s a very exciting and hopeful moment for Saudi women, long shackled to the whims of the men required to cart them around should they want to go anywhere.Men like to say that it took a long time for the country to get behind women driving because of significant cultural issues, such as the extreme protectiveness — women might say smothering domination — that Saudi men have long legally been allowed, even encouraged, to impose on women. But the genesis of such cultural enforcement is pure religion, which gives its innate coerciveness a sharper, more insistent, almost absolute edge.
And in Saudi Arabia church and state are indivisible. In fact, the law of the land is the Quran, as the American Christian Right would dearly like to make the Bible in the U.S.
Muslims once prayed toward Jerusalem
It’s instructive to note that Islam, which coalesced with its Arabian prophet, Muhammad, early in the 7th century, began as a hodgepodge of desert pagan influences along with traditions and stories in Christian and Judaic scripture. Muhammad revered the earlier prophets and in his holy book, the Quran, respectfully refers to believers of those traditions as “people of the book.” Initially, Muhammad directed his Islamic converts to face Jerusalem when praying, but when disrespected and dismissed by Jewish authorities in his area, he changed his policy and told his adherents to instead face Mecca, his birth place, when praying to Allah.
The ancient concept of women’s innate inferiority to men was fully embedded in Judaism, Christianity and then Islam, and its key artifact remaining today — the perpetual second-class status of women — is still apparent in societies where these faiths predominate. Including, I might add, the United States of America, where women weren’t legally authorized to vote until 1920 and still must fight to be legally protected against sexual assault by men. Even in the U.S. for many years a religio-cultural stigma existed against women working because of biblical edicts demanding that women “be fruitful and multiply,” which required extraordinary labor at home (and presumably no time for work outside the home) once the multiplicity kicked in.
In fact, scriptures of all the great monotheistic religions are clearly misogynist. The Bible, for example — amplified by St. Augustine and Martin Luther and others — places blame for sin and the death of Christ squarely at the feet of inherently devious and seductive women. Eve’s damning apple in the Garden of Eden and all that. The male solution? Dominate and control women. That’s why there are no female bishops or even priests in the Roman Catholic Church today, or female imam’s guiding the faithful in Islamic mosques. It’s “unnatural,” after all.
As Saudis have long been aware, money is not the root of all evil. It’s automobiles driven by women. They saw what happened to mid-century America when the auto culture took off. Sex in the back seat, booze in the cupholder and rock ’n’ roll on the radio. And girls could go anywhere with anyone they chose.
Lost to memory
So, when Saudis explain that their reluctance to let women drive is cultural, they’re being disingenuous. Their attitudes toward women were incubated in ancient religious traditions, transferred to their own society and embedded, where they remain today so many millennia from their roots the scriptural connection is lost to memory.
As Saudi women now jump into their own cars with abandon, they carry an enormous pent-up demand for freedom that has been percolating for many centuries behind the smokescreen of male domination.
But instead of racing to the homes of lovers and into their arms, they’re probably most often excitedly driving instead to the mall to hang out with girlfriends, as they have always done.
But now — for the moment, anyway — they have their own wheels. And drive their own destinies.
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