Protests to lift the Saudi ban on women’s driving have taken by storm the inner pages of newspapers all over the world; the Kingdom’s decades-long efforts to subdue these women, haven’t. But before jumping on either bandwagon, why do you think Islam bans women from driving?
- Women are typically bad drivers
- Women are effectively blinded by their veils
- Cars are known to molest women
- It makes men even more useless
- Women are too emo to handle road-rage
- It messes with the ovaries
Yeah – I know you’re thinking it’s #3 and an Arabian judicial advisor has actually suggested #6. But actually it’s none of the above. Islam doesn’t ban women from driving, Saudi Arabia does. That’s why none of the fifty other Muslim countries fight tooth and nail to keep women from the wheels.
What does Islam say about driving-women? Obviously: nothing. But there are accounts of the earliest Muslim women making their pilgrimage to Makkah independently. The Prophet Muhammad’s first wife Khadija (PBUT) is known to have traveled on camelback for trading purposes. What we do find is a debate over is if women should be making long journeys alone or with guardians.
In Saudi culture, women have traditionally been conservative and protected (face-veils, for example, are derived culturally). In the 1990s, only 8% women were employed and none drove. But then female US troops were seen driving freely through Saudi streets during the 1990 Gulf War. Feeling that they too should be able to do the same – 47 Saudi women organized a convoy. They were promptly arrested. Soon after, the Grand Mufti (senior most religious authority) declared a fatwa, or religious edict to quasi-formalize the ban – because driving would expose women “to temptation” and lead to “social chaos.”
What’s interesting to note is that Saudi Arabia doesn’t have an actual law supporting the ban. It just prevents women from getting licenses. There are murmurs of certain Hadiths that call for women travelers to be accompanied by mahrams (husbands or men who may not be married e.g. fathers, brothers, uncles, grandfathers). But as Prof. Dr. Abdulaziz Bayindir of islamandquran.org thinks, these Hadiths, in essence, are about the safety and security of the women. So, if safety is ensured, Bayindir argues, then women may travel alone. But this blog is unsuited for that debate.
One must concede that in this highly conservative society, a woman driving is undoubtedly a cultural affront. It is new, it is change. And that may be why one-third of Saudi women and half of the men think women have no business behind the wheels. And most do it – not for religious reasons, but fearing social consequences.
“Women in Saudi Arabia are safer, and better taken care of, and have more status and privilege than women in the West,” says writer Lubna al-Tahlawi. Western women are viewed as sex objects, suffer from a high rate of prostitution, and don’t even make the same salary as men for the same job, as women here do, she argues. “Driving has not improved their lives.” Faiza al-Obaidi, a Biology professor, says she thinks the attempts at Western-style female emancipation are part of a religious war being waged by the United States, “an intellectual rather than physical colonization.”
Abdel-Rehman wrote on The Guardian that according to a rapid survey, many women themselves aren’t that crazy about driving. They are allegedly terrified that it could unleash sexual harassment, family disintegration, adultery and even sedition in the KSA. These attitudes are reinforced by ‘scientific’ reports demonstrating on how driving will lead to increased homosexuality and pornography. Within ten years of the ban being lifted, the report’s authors claimed, there would be ‘no more virgins’ in the Islamic kingdom. Mrs. Rowdha Yousef was so outraged by the Women2Drive campaign that she started her own counter-campaign titled, ‘My Guardian Knows What’s Best for Me’. The government helped out by shutting down her rivals’ site.
It is difficult – perhaps even wrong – for an outsider to judge a custom before understanding that society’s attitudes, values and beliefs. Saudi authorities have often defended the ban with “society is not ready” – which may indicate that they think there will be a right time. In a 2005 address, King Abdullah declared, “the day will come when women drive.” The 2013 protests were treated less harshly by Saudi Police, compared to the 1990 arrests. Three of the thirty Shura (advisory) council’s women-members have requested that the ban be reconsidered. There are signs that the Saudis are beginning to think that the right time is now.