Argument

Hands Off the Wheel

Hands Off the Wheel


If this year’s Arab freedom movements had a soundtrack, it’d be an eclectic assortment, from the densely operatic story line that saw the deposement of Hosni Mubarak, to the thunderous mortars and bomb blasts of Libya, to the staccato work of government snipers in Syria. The most recent track would likely prove to be among the more modest: the car horns currently being honked across Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia has largely been immune to the uprisings and revolutions sweeping the region: Minor rumblings by the Shiite minority in the Eastern Province were quickly quieted, and the government handed out billions of dollars to citizens in a pre-emptive measure to quell any would-be dissent. But a campaign by Saudi women claiming the right to drive — the conservative Gulf monarchy is the only country in the world that forbids women to operate automobiles — threatens to shake up the status quo.

As in neighboring countries, the protests are relying on civil disobedience: One of the organizers of the movement, Manal al-Sharif, was arrested by Saudi authorities on Sunday, May 22, after twice filming herself driving a car in her hometown of Dammam and posting the videos to YouTube. Despite the demonstrative arrest, the movement shows little sign of slowing down: A lively Twitter campaign named Women2Drive is calling for women across Saudi Arabia to take to the streets (in automobiles) on June 17.

The stakes may not seem as high as those that have toppled dictators elsewhere in the region, but the Saudi monarchy is quickly moving to extinguish the threat to its absolute rule. And that includes offering a blanket defense of the status quo, women-free roads included. From Riyadh’s perspective, there are apparently plenty of good reasons — theological, sociological, biological — that women shouldn’t be allowed to get behind the wheel. The Saudi monarchy has seen fit in recent months to trot each out for a spin in the national media (exclusively owned, natch, by Saudis close to the royal family).

All in all, it’s an impressive display of pseudo-intellectual apologetics. Judges for the Saudi Pulitzers have no doubt already taken note, but here’s a digest for the rest of us.

You’re not oppressed, you’re a princess!

In Arab News, Rima al-Mukhtar argues that Saudi women don’t really want to drive to begin with. “To them,” she writes, “driving is a hassle and not appropriate for Saudi Arabia” because Saudi women usually hire drivers to chauffeur them wherever they need to go. “Usually, only the rich and famous have their own chauffeur,” she adds, “but in Saudi Arabia almost everyone has one.” She quotes several Saudi women who are loath to assume the tiresome responsibility of having to steer their own vehicles. “When I travel to a country where I can drive,” says Zaina al-Salem, a 29-year-old banker, “I’m usually burdened about the part when I get to park my car and walk all the way to the store.” (Walking’s bad enough, but when you throw in the humidity? Forget about it!) Shahad Ibrahim adds, “I feel like a princess where my driver takes me everywhere I want without complaint.”

You steer, I leer.

In the newspaper Asharq Alawsat, Salem Salman reviews a play titled “Profit Becomes a Loss,” performed at Riyadh’s Disabled Children’s Association Theater. (Off-off Broadway, then?) Drawing on the great classics of the stage, the play “deals mainly with the issue of female driving,” dramatizing the plight of women who mistakenly associate freedom of movement with true liberation. Far from being ennobled by their ability to drive automobiles, the characters in the play realize they’ve been diminished by their exposure to the broader culture in essence, driving meant being harassed by constant catcalls. Apparently, the playwright felt so strongly about the point that, by play’s end, he abandoned all pretense of subtlety and went straight to the CliffsNotes version. The concluding words, spoken by a forlorn woman driver, read: “Help me, people, I’m afraid to drive.… We do not want this civilization…. So write this down; forget about driving.” Bravo?


The king knows best.

Abdul Rahman al-Rashed, in Asharq Alawsat, eschews a defense of the ban in favor of attacking the methods used by the organizers of the movement. The campaign, you see, is operating under the mistaken assumption that Saudi Arabia is a democracy. By compiling petitions and the like, the activists are trying “to take a shortcut with regards to convincing the government to change its position on the issue.” Of course, it’s the government’s job to make policy on the basis of what the “overwhelming majority” — as opposed to a shortsighted, if democratically legitimate “slim majority” — of Saudi society wants. “An overwhelming majority is beneficial in this case as it would allow the idea to become reality with only a little official push,” he notes. “A slim majority on the other hand would result in bitter social and political division.”

Al-Rashed further suggests that Saudi activists take the government’s word that it’s correctly divining the public will — not least because objective measures of public opinion are unavailable. Why’s that? Because they’re illegal, of course! “Is there truly public support towards ending the ban on women driving? Nobody knows,” he writes. That’s your classic straight-talking al-Rashed: holding the Saudi public accountable for the ignorance that’s been forcibly imposed on it by the government.

The editor in chief of Asharq Alawsat, Tariq Alhomayed, takes a similar tack, warning against unnecessarily politicizing the issue. Taking the technocratic route, he suggests the “formation of a committee to study the issue” and the creation of a pilot program that would allow Saudi women “of a certain age” to begin driving in certain cities. That said, this is a terrible idea: We presume Alhomayed has never been to Boca Raton.

God says women drivers are evil and deserve to die.

And then there’s this. The Saudi-owned Elaph.com website reports on the meditations of Saudi cleric Shaykh Abd-al-Rahman al-Barrak against women who wish to drive cars. “What they are intending to do is forbidden and they thus become the keys to evil in this country,” he writes, calling them “westernized women seeking to westernize this country.” Name-calling aside, al-Barrack is drawing on an extremist Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, according to which God forbids any mixed-gender mingling outside the family. Giving women the freedom to move around on their own would be to tempt God’s wrath.

In fact, al-Barrak predicts the activists will be struck dead: “They will die, God willing, and will not enjoy this.” The reporter for Elaph.com, with an impressive degree of restraint, refers to this as “biting criticism.” (Al-Barrack seems to enjoy something of a contrarian reputation among the Wahhabi chattering classes: Earlier this year, he endorsed a fatwa that calls for the demolishment and subsequent redesigning of Mecca’s Kaaba — Islam’s holiest site — so as to avoid gender mixing. Biting!)

At least no one offered up the old saw that women aren’t any good at driving. Probably because on that score Saudi women are painfully aware that their male counterparts aren’t in any position to judge.