Empty Room, Open Door

Come on in, if you like
Editor’s Pick
DECEMBER 8, 2011 4:03PM

Saudi Clerics: Women Drivers are Sluts!

Rate: 16 Flag

In a typical move by the highest religious council in Saudi Arabia, clerics recently announced that if women were allowed to drive in their country, it would lead to “no more virgins” in the Kingdom.

The statement says a lot about the view of women in Saudi Arabia. First, it basically implies that women are all whores who are looking for indiscriminate sex around every corner. Men have to retain strict control over women’s movements, the sheikhs say, because women themselves, if given the slightest opportunity—the slightest freedom—will run around seducing anything that moves.

This statement also says something about the council’s view of men: That they, too, have no control over their passions—after all, if there are to be no more virgins, men are getting involved here, too—but the responsibility for sex lands squarely on the backs of women. A man’s lack of self-control is somehow not his fault; he is not expected to be able to control his urges. While women are viewed as lustful temptresses, men are practically victims of their own urges. Therefore, it is up to women to cover, up to them to stay at home while men are allowed to roam freely.

Second, the clerics’ statement places the issue of driving—a political ban that has no basis in the Muslim religion—squarely in the religious realm, as religious scholars make claims that the right to drive will somehow cause disintegration of the society’s moral order. This is manipulation of the worst sort, intended to gather support from the religiously conservative in the Kingdom. (In my experience, the religious conservatives in the country are not necessarily politically conservative…in fact, some of the most religious people I knew there were also some of the most progressive.)

The statement was a pathetic jab at the women’s-right-to-drive campaign that has been gathering momentum this year. I’m not really sure which is worse: That the sheikhs know what kind of garbage they’re spewing, or the possibility that they actually believe what’s coming out of their mouths.


Of all of the women’s issues in Saudi Arabia, it’s the ban on driving that angers me the most. In Saudi Arabia, I felt the effects when I visited a friend, Amal, in the southern city of Abha. Amal and I met in the States while her husband was studying for his master’s; we became close friends. When my own husband moved to do his master’s in Saudi Arabia, I had the opportunity to visit her in her home.

Amal’s husband came and picked my husband and I up from the airport. We met Amal and her kids back at home, where she had prepared an enormous feast for us to enjoy together before my husband left to see some other friends the next day.

And then I didn’t see the sky for the next three days.

We couldn’t go out. Amal’s husband was working, so we and her three small children stayed in. All the time. There was no place to walk, no sidewalks or parks, even if it had been acceptable for us to go for a stroll together. Anyplace that she’d like to take her kids—the amusement park, the store, a restaurant—was much too far away. Her house didn’t even have windows. Amal was inside all of the time—she didn’t even step out onto her front porch to pick up a newspaper. It was like living in a bomb shelter.

After just three days, I started to feel depressed. I felt like a trapped animal, pacing in its cage. Her kids ran circles around Amal in the house, full of energy with no outlet. In America, where two of the three were born, she used to kick them out into the backyard or walk with them to the park or the school’s playground. But back in Saudi, they just sprinted around the halls of her house, begging to go somewhere like they used to do in America. They simply didn’t understand when she told them it was not possible anymore.

My depression was nothing compared to Amal’s. Five years in the States had gotten her accustomed to certain freedoms—like the ability to leave her house. Back in Saudi, if she wanted to go anywhere, do anything, she had to wait until her husband was off work, or ask her brother to drive all the way across town to pick her up. Wealthier Saudi women hire drivers, but not everyone has that option. Amal told me she missed America, missed being able to go out whenever she wanted, missed being able to provide opportunities for her kids. They’re just as trapped as she is at home. If Dad can’t take them where they want to go, they don’t have another option. And never mind what might happen if she had an emergency and needed to drive to the hospital or something.

The ban on women’s driving hurts women like Amal the worst.


A few months later, back at the Saudi compound where I lived, a good Saudi friend, Sabah, asked me to teach her to drive. Inside the compound, it isn’t forbidden for women to drive—provided they have a driver’s license from their own country. So effectively, only Saudi women are banned from driving inside the compound, since their country refuses to grant them licenses.

Sabah asking for driving lessons was a very big deal. Many of my female Saudi friends told me they were afraid to drive, saying it wasn’t “safe” for a woman to get behind the wheel. (They did not feel a similar way about riding in a car with a man driving.) It was the hegemony of the rulers of the country asserting itself in the worst possible way: Women themselves being convinced they lack competency. Sabah’s husband actually went out and bought her a car—one he never drove, because it was hers. But with his work schedule, he just couldn’t find the time to teach her. So Sabah gathered her courage and asked me to take her out.

When it comes to something so clearly unjust, demeaning, and damaging to half a country’s population, I’m always up for a little civil disobedience. Not that I was in a lot of danger—after all, I’d be riding shotgun, with a license in my pocket. Sabah was the courageous one.

So she got behind the wheel, and I started my lessons with the same thing my father told me at 15: “You are now sitting inside a weapon. You must be very careful with this weapon so you do not hurt anyone.”

We drove in abandoned parking lots and quiet residential streets. I made her check left-right-left at stop signs. I told her to use her blinker to change lanes, and made her check over her shoulder for her blind spot. I told her to assume other cars would not follow the rules. The language barrier was the hardest part: My Arabic vocabulary doesn’t include the words intersection, accelerate, brake, reverse, or shift. So we’d be cruising along and I’d start a sentence, wracking my brain for an appropriate synonym.

She was exceptionally careful. She’d stop 15 or 20 feet back from a stop sign, just to make sure she didn’t poke into the intersection. She’d wave other drivers across if they came to a stop at the same time. I’d have to encourage her to go faster to reach the speed limit. When we stopped our driving lessons, I felt totally assured that Sabah would be safe behind the wheel—licensed or not.

After I left Saudi late last year, I got an e-mail from Sabah. She was driving, she said, almost every day. She took her daughters to school and drove to the grocery store and was able to visit friends. None of the traffic police has ever stopped her yet. She told me that she loves it.

The only problem, she said, was that eventually, she and her family would move out of the compound and back to their hometown. There, no women are allowed to drive.

“After this, I cannot imagine I will not drive,” she told me.

And neither can I.

Your tags:


Enter the amount, and click "Tip" to submit!
Recipient's email address:
Personal message (optional):

Your email address:


Type your comment below:
i don't have much respect for the culture or religion of saudi arabia, but it's worth holding in mind that the strictures on women were probably functional in a nomadic culture utterly with out a police function.

those strictures are presumably somewhat obsolete now, but i wouldn't be in a hurry to bet my daughter's freedom on it. and before we get too holier than thou, a virgin could walk from hungary to korea carrying a bag of gold when genghis khan was enforcing the law, but there are areas in most american cities that women better avoid.
Thanks for putting a human face on a media story. The right to vote for women is of course important, but you are correct that it is the lack of freedom of movement when women can't drive themselves that really impacts their daily lives. It is the courage of the women like Sabeh who will eventually bring about change. Please tell her how much I admire her!
Oh, Alex, what a story. I'm glad you were able to teach your friend to drive. I cannot imagine being a woman in Saudi Arabia, or for that matter, any country where misogyny is institutionalized and enforced, and women are treated as less than human. thank you for posting this.
What a fascinating personal account of life in Saudi Arabia. The way you described Amal's existence broke my heart. Bravo to you for teaching a woman there to drive. History has shown that we women aren't very good at breaking free of oppression, but I have hope that some day, the idea of women driving Saudi Arabia will be as uncontroversial as it is here.
Thank you for sharing. I cannot imagine, either, being a woman in Saudi. I've always been particularly independent and in my family, the women have had significant roles. It irks me to think that in 2011, there are those who still think the world will fall apart if women can realize their potential, .... and drive.
Hi everybody,
First of all, I am a Saudi guy, and I study English now in Canada.
Regarding to the article, I would say that the writer does not know anything about Saudi Arabia because he lied too much and wrote many many things are not true and it seems to me that he talks about another country not Saudi Arabia. Actually, the most important thing that the Saudi relegoius sheiks do not control people there especially in this issue because the one who ban women driving is the Interior Ministry not the Saudi sheiks. So please, you have to respect readers and don't lie to them.
Finally, I think this is an internal issue belongs only to the Saudi people.
Thank you for this excellent piece.

Sabah will never forget what you have done for her, which I believe in Arabic is "sevab". Teaching something to another person is one of the basic tenets of Islam in which I was raised as a Turkish born girl. However, I believe every word you wrote is true for the Saudi women who do not have the same privileges as their counterparts who live in "compounds" for "foreigners". I am familiar with the mindset of Islamic men who think like they do and it is those that give Islam a bad name and wipe out its beauty and simplicity of faith. Kudos to you for your "little civil disobedience".

@aboelias: With respect to your beliefs, I do not agree with the statements in your comment. Particularly your last sentence strenghtens the argument the author of this piece. Women are treated just as she illustrated and they are stifled if they try to tell the truth and the inhuman treatment they are exposed to by males, of whom you sound like you may be one. Such men also, in my opinion, are the strongest disciples of what is known as a "double standard." I hope your education in Canada will be more than academic.

Always interesting to see how other societies go about their business Alex. I suppose one of these days theirs will open up but in the meantime, life is pretty stifling for the Sabahs and Amals.

@aboelias: It would be fine leaving it to the Saudi people if they had anything approaching a real democracy where governments got voted out of office, where there was little press censorship and where the judiciary was independent of the rulers. You just don't believe in human rights, do you?
I would say that we appreciate women in Saudi Arabia because they are our mothers, our wives, our sistres.. They are queens in our hearts. My wife, for example, studies in English in Canada and she will study master in the United States. Actually, you can see how many Saudi girls study in different countries around the world.

Regarding to the democracy, first you have to prove that you support democracy, how do want me to believe you and for ex we can't find a single women became a President of the US, and you will not see that day because you claim that you spport democracy but you band women to a President with a special agenda. The days between us and I am challeging you.
I had no idea that such laws existed in even modern Saudi Arabia. Crazy. Up with civil disobedience...
@aboelias: Actually, I never claimed that the sheikhs of the country "control" this issue or enforce the driving ban. I simply quoted a statement that they put out last week. (The degree to which sheikhs influence the government--the ties that the house of Saud has to the Wahhabi religious leaders, in particular--is probably too complicated an issue for me to tackle here.)
I would never claim to fully understand another culture--it's fairly difficult for me to understand my own. What I wrote here was simply my perceptions of the attitudes of some Saudis (particularly the extremist sheikhs), and my own experiences with living in your country.
As far as this issue belonging "only to the Saudi people"--I fundamentally disagree that I should not stand up for the rights of my fellow human beings, just because they belong to a different nationality.
"In a typical move by the highest religious council in Saudi Arabia, clerics recently announced that if women were allowed to drive in their country, it would lead to “no more virgins” in the Kingdom."
maybe this statement is less about driving than it is about sex. the idea that virginity is a scarce commodity, or that virginity is necessary for purity, are ancient religious concepts. so therefore in repressive socieities womens freedom of consorting is restricted in many ways and in this case merely thru driving.
aboelias: As a Canadian, I am rather amazed at how little you've learned about our culture. Of course discrimination against women still exists in North America but the lack of an American woman president doesn't mean that we are at the same level as a society that effectively cripples half of its population. How does driving one's children to a park or a hospital in an emergency translate into being a whore, which is what the clerics are inferring? And by the way, Canada did have a female prime minister. What I sense from you is fear that women might in fact not only be equal to you, but perhaps even your superiors in some cases. I truly wonder if your wife shares your repressive opinions and how happy she will be to become trapped inside and at the mercy of male whims if you return to Saudi Arabia. My guess is that you wouldn't last 5 minutes deprived of the freedoms you take for granted simply be being born with male genitalia.