By Viet Tran
Each morning, the average American will wake up and use their personal vehicles to commute or conduct their daily activities. Over 90 percent of Americans drive to work, with each individual averaging at least 100 minutes per day in transit. The ability to drive is a privilege across the globe, however for all women in Saudi Arabia this privilege has been revoked. Saudi women who drive or even attempt to get behind a vehicle will face harassment, intimidation and possibly arrest.
Women in Saudi Arabia have continuously dealt with many challenging restrictions that are part of a larger system of gender-based laws, some of which are harshest in the world. It was not until 2011 that women were allowed to run for political office, and it was not until 2013 that Saudi women were allowed to compete at the Olympics. These athletes were, however, criticized by conservatives for performing in front of a mixed gendered audience. Despite this gradual progression of these human rights, however controversial they may be, Saudi Arabia still stands as the only country in the world that prohibits women from driving, where violation of the driving ban in Jeddah could sentence a woman to 10 lashes.
This ban on driving became an official policy in November 1990 during the Gulf War. Among the American participants were female soldiers, many of whom held weapons, commanded men and drove vehicles. All of this came as a shock to the Saudi women as public physical contact is rare, and societal norms prohibit women from having authority over men, with few exceptions. Thus women were inspired to protest. In one incident, 47 Saudi women took to the streets of Riyadh in a convoy to demonstrate defiance of the driving ban. Officials responded promptly to the situation with arrests. Despite these actions, one unanswered question remains–why does this ban still exist? Perhaps there are underlying religious and social reasons behind this current structure.
In 1991, the Grand Mufti, the country’s most senior religious authority, made a statement in regards to women driving. The Grand Mufti declared a fatwa, or a religious edict, against females driving in the desert kingdom. The issued fatwa suggested that the public act of female driving would involve gender “mixing”–a controversial action heavily frowned upon by the nation. The Grand Mufti claimed that allowing women to drive would result in a plethora of dangerous situations, noting that this “mixing” would lead to social chaos because of the deviation from convention. Women had basic duties such as housekeeping and attending to the children; such mixing would lead to defection from their traditional values, and arguably, from Islam. Nasser al-Oud, a professor of social service, further adds that the idea of women driving stands as a cultural issue. He states Saudi Arabia society rejects novel change, the idea of women driving could make men feel relegated from their position in this patriarchal society. In short, it is feared that allowing women to drive would cause a rupture socially, economically and politically in the traditional, dichotomous society of Saudi Arabia, which currently places men in dominant positions in the community.
The ultraconservative Saudi government has ratified the U.N. Convention on All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), but the convention does not institute enforcement. Actions have been taken by Saudi activists and other women rights activists to push for change, even enacting public campaigns to further divulge the issue. The movement picked up momentum earlier this month with President Barack Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia. Activists encouraged women to take the wheel in defiance of the ban. Furthermore, Amnesty International has called upon the U.S. president to take a strong stance on the issue. The human rights organization stated that the women in Saudi Arabia faced discrimination on many levels, and “under its restrictive guardianship system, women need the permission of a male guardian to get married, travel, undergo certain types of surgery, accept paid employment or enroll in higher education.” Despite these calls to action, the issue of driving (and gender equality in general) still does not receive enough attention.
What can we do? And should we do anything? The movement for Saudi Arabia to treat women equally may take some time for that concept to socialize into a norm. However, a most recent gender gap report by the World Economic forum depict that equality has demonstrated “modest” gains in the Middle East. Representative Begum, of Human Rights Watch, notes that we will continue to see attention brought to this issue and increasing agitation for more change. “Women in Saudi Arabia are highly educated and qualified,” Begum states. “They don’t want to be left in the dark.”
As Saudi women continue to show their defiance, the world can continue showing its support in demanding the fundamental rights these women deserve. The movement for their rights is gradual, but is one that must start with greater awareness.
Photo by Zamanalsamt