It is illegal for women to drive in Saudi Arabia. Why? Tradition. Interpretation of holy writ. And the king says so.
Cameron Abadi, writing in Foreign Affairs, takes a look at the most ridiculous arguments against allowing Saudi women behind the wheel. They look strangely familiar.
The first reason Saudis don't let women drive is because the king knows best. If you want to fix it you are a traitor. But just in case, we'll form a committee and study it.
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.
The other reason Saudis don't let women drive is that God says so.
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.
Of course, 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.