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.