Culture / Feminism / Religion

The Top Five Things to Come Out of Saudi Arabia’s Woman Driver Debate

Saudi Arabia doesn’t like it when women drive; that’s not exactly breaking news (though if it is to you, you might want to read up on the policies of one of the “Good Guys” in the Middle East). There’s been a furor for the past few years in the hyper-theocracy over women demanding the right to drive. There’s technically no law against women driving, but there’s also no way for them to legally register for a license, so it adds up to de facto illegality. Woman drivers face harassment, arrest, or being fired from their job.

In protest (also illegal in Saudi Arabia), women have been making a concerted demonstration by driving publicly, some documenting it on video to wave it in the regime’s faces. The debate has gained more attention lately, and some real gems have emerged from the national conversation.

1. Outlaw driving videos

Just knowing what the situation is makes these videos special.  You kind of want some NWA layered over the footage for maximum fist-pump, but seriously, women in hijabs and niqabs driving in willful defiance of the law! In case that isn’t enough badass for you, here’s the mashup.

Bonus: An extra long video from 2011, Manal Al Sharif drives around with women’s rights activist Wajeha al-Huwaider and discusses various difficulties and problems that arise from the driving ban.

2. Driving is bad for the ovaries

A conservative Saudi cleric submitted to the debate that driving harms the reproductive systems of women. Sheik Saleh Saad el-Leheidan made the outlandish claim that driving puts women into an unnatural position (sitting) which puts undue stress on their ovaries. What’s that? Dumb flailing bullshit from a religious nutjob is low-hanging fruit? That may be. But too bad, I love this fruit!

In comments aired over the weekend by the privately owned Rotana channel, gynecologist Mohammed Baknah says scientific studies have not proven that driving has adverse effects on women’s reproductive health.

Ignoring the past 100 years of women driving and going on to produce hardy, healthy children, the cleric warned women that climbing into the driver’s seat could damage their chances to have kids and spend the rest of their lives indoors. Quickly, he was corrected and shut down by a doctor (or maybe a five-year-old who wants to be a doctor someday).

3. Hey feminists, quit trying to impose equality

Make no mistake: feminism has some pretty enormous and harmful blind spots when it comes to issues outside the western white woman. Some feminist groups have supported wrong-headed action to address issues they don’t understand; banning the burqa for example. Not only is France’s ban in place for racist, xenophobic reasons, it isn’t exactly feminist to cheer about women not being allowed to wear a certain thing in public.

But this opinion piece published in The Guardian grabs onto the “maybe feminists don’t have it all right?” and won’t let go, not even when the author ends up supporting the driving ban.

People in Saudi Arabia have their own moral views and needs. What works in other societies may not fit in Saudi, and the reverse. In short, instead of launching campaigns to change the driving laws in the kingdom, the west should first ask Saudi women if they really want this or not, and western countries should accept the result, even if it’s not to their liking.

Or, fucking, we could just insist that women be afforded the same rights as men, everywhere? We could insist that every person be afforded the same rights and dignity as everyone else? These women are human beings; it has nothing to do with beliefs or societal values.

Not only does the article act like saying “give women the same rights as men” is some kind of western chauvinism, it values the voices of establishment-aligned women and ignores those of women who, you know, recorded themselves driving on the streets of Saudi Arabia and are demanding the right to drive.

4. Woman arrested for driving her sick father to a hospital

Okay, this one isn’t funny at all. A Kuwaiti woman was arrested in Saudi Arabia for driving her diabetic father to the hospital. I never said this would be all fun all the time. This is on the list because it’s a great example of real consequences of the ban. Women are made less useful, less contributory members of society through this denial of rights. It isn’t just that it’s not fair that women can’t drive, it’s a health risk. And not just for diabetic dads — in the Al Sharif video above (Item 1), she references a photo of a woman’s 10-year-old son driving her somewhere because, as a male child, he has more of a right than his adult mother. I’m sure there’s some 10-year-olds around who can drive a car, but come, now.

5. No Woman, No Drive

A parody of the Bob Marley standard, “No Woman, No Drive” is a fun and goofy song from the perspective of the Saudi establishment, reminiscing on the good old days when women stayed in the back seat, the house, and the kitchen.

Musical instruments are the subject of some controversy in Islam, as numerous ahadith (though not the Quran itself) seem to imply that they are forbidden. As such, some Muslims forgo them, as in this video (props to the beard-scratch egg shaker). Music is legal in the kingdom, though it’s the official position from clerics and the state establishment that the previously mentioned ahadith do indeed forbid music. It’s not totally clear what Fageeh’s feelings are on the subject, but given his irreverence towards the Kingdom’s authority, the improvised instruments seem like an extra tasty layer of joke.

Did we miss something? What are your favorite moments from the driving debate? Comment below with your thoughts.

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