Yes, you should care if Saudi women can drive
It's not just about driving
Put aside all the jokes about women drivers.
Saudi Arabia has the highest vehicle mortality rate in the world, and until this week only men drive in the Kingdom..
Put aside thinking the rest of the world is really like America to one degree or another.
Saudi Arabia is the home of the two holiest cities in Islam: Mecca and Medina. It is the most conservative country in the Arab world. Women there are not only restricted from driving. They may not go out of their homes by themselves. They may not uncover their faces, even in their own homes if an adult male is present who is not their father or husband. I knew a woman who sat at her dinner table with her veil held to hide the side of her face so only her father, who was seated across from her, and her husband, who was seated next to her, could see her face while she ate.
No woman of any nationality may enter the Kingdom unaccompanied by a male relative or sponsor. My mother-in-law's plane arrived earlier than we expected, and she was detained in a room by herself until my husband arrived to claim her. Being American made no difference. Interestingly, an unaccompanied western woman may leave the Kingdom by herself.
A divorced woman has no right to her children. A married woman has no protection from her husband marrying a second, or third, or fourth wife. I taught English in a women's language school, and my student's (mostly middle class) greatest fear was their husbands would become successful enough to marry a second wife. Oh, yes, and a man can divorce his wife at any time for any reason.
So what does all this have to do with driving?
Driving is a start.
A few women in Saudi Arabia attempted driving their own cars in 1990 in response to learning some women and children were abandoned by their male relatives when the Iraqis invaded Kuwait. The response to that effort was the killing of some of those women by their families. The response to those killings? None. (Princess, by Jean Sasson)
The official response in 1990 to the demonstration for allowing women to drive? King Fahd elevated the custom to the status of a law forbiding women to drive. In 2008 KIng Abdallah, while promising reforms in his country, said he would change the law against women driving the next year. The rest of the world paid no attention and he didn't do it.
Women drive in Kuwait. Women drive in Egypt. Women drive in Dubai. It is not an Arab issue. It is not a Muslim issue. It is a Saudi issue.
Driving means a woman can decide for herself where she wants to go. It means she will uncover her face in public. Most of my students were devout Muslims. They just wanted to see at night without stepping off a curb and twisting an ankle. They didn't want their sons telling them to cover their faces when they left the house. What does it say to a boy as young as six years old when he can tell his mother to cover her face?
I lived in the Kingdom from 1990 to 1994. Before Desert Storm western women had lived in Saudi for 20 years with only an unofficial dress code saying they would cover their arms down to their elbows, wear skirts that covered their knees, and not wear tight clothing that showed any of their figure. Nobody cared beyond that. By 1991 western women were being advised to wear the abaya (the black choir robe type garment) to avoid conflicts with the Mutauah (religious police). When we complied we were then advised to cover our hair with a scarf. When we complied some western women with dark hair and eyes were advised to cover their faces because the religious police might mistake them for Arab. In a souk (shopping area) one evening a Mutauah asked my husband why he didn't leave his wife at home? My husband asked if he meant back at our villa or back in America? The Mutauah just smiled.
When my students saw me coming to class in an abaya and scarf, they asked me how things would ever change for them if western women gave in to the demands of the KIngdom? That was in 1991.
Teach Me To Drive So I Can Protect Myself is a Facebook page with 18,000 supporters. A men's version was also posted encouraging men to beat any woman they see driving. Beating women in the Kingdom is not against the law: any woman, anywhere, for whatever reason. Still think this issue is just about driving?
Khaled al-Nowaiser of The Arab News recently wrote:
"The issue of women driving has been debated for decades and no action has yet been taken. The answer always seems to be that Saudi society 'isn't ready'. What exactly does this mean? What does society need to do to be ready so women can drive themselves in the kingdom?
"Likewise, the ability of women to work, travel and live normal life has been restricted in order to please extremists in the country and sadly at the expense of our daughters, sisters, wives and mothers. This is wrong because Saudi Arabia will never progress without the real and full participation of women. The issue must be decided politically."
The systematic denial of basic rights to women is the major cause of poverty worldwide according to The Center for Democracy and Human Rights. There is a direct correlation between a country's prosperity and how they treat women. Saudi Arabia may be the exception that makes the rule. For the most part, thanks to oil, they are not poor. But a woman there has no right to medical care, education or physical safety beyond what the man in her life allows. She can't even drive herself or her children to an emergency room.
Driving is just a start. And we can help. We can pay attention.