Have Saudi Women Traded Civil Rights for Driving Rights?

Arguing against the driving ban but within Islamic law can be an effective strategy

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Faisal Al Nasser / Reuters

A woman drives a car in Saudi Arabia, on Oct. 22, 2013.

Saudi women have ramped up their struggle to end their country’s ban on female drivers recently. This battle is decades old, but what’s surprising is that these women are increasingly defending their right to drive not by referring to any Western conception of liberty or equality. Rather, they are arguing that allowing women behind the wheel is more consistent with sharia — the same Islamic law that instructs men that women are their property, just like “gold, silver, branded beautiful horses, cattle and well-tilled land.” No less than three female members of the shura, the king’s advisory council, an all-male body until recently, have argued that the ban is not ordained by sharia but the country’s tribal Bedouin traditions that are at odds with the true teachings of the Quran. By forcing women to depend on hired male drivers (most of whom are foreigners) the ban itself violates sharia’s strictures proscribing women from being alone in the company of unrelated men. And while this seems contradictory, arguing from the texts of a religion whose oppressive yoke they’re seeking to cast off is an effective strategy that requires no needless martyring to one’s cause.

(MORE: Forbidden to Drive: A Saudi Woman on Life Inside the Kingdom)

Saudi Arabia is the only country that bars women from driving. It also requires women to obtain permission from their male “guardians” to conduct any official business — buy property, get married, have elective surgery or travel. The Saudi government hasn’t quite figured out how to deliver mail to homes, yet last year it managed to successfully implement a state-of-the-art electronic tracking system that texts husbands if their wives leave the country without them. “No matter how long you live, you remain a minor in the eyes of the government,” one woman lamented.

Instead of taking such indignities head-on, Saudi activists have chosen a cautious path. The organizers of the recent campaign even advised women to scrupulously observe clerical diktats and wear a hijab and have a male relative in tow when they went cruising. This might seem counterproductive to Western observers, suggesting that the driving ban is bad not because it restricts women’s movements, but because it offends their modesty. But arguments that are regressive in one context are progressive in another. There are universal rights, but not a universally valid playbook for achieving them. Western freedoms too were won by precisely such piecemeal, ad hominem arguments.

John Locke, the English 17th Century political theorist credited with launching the Enlightenment, argued for the separation of church and state — the centerpiece of liberal democracy — not by a frontal assault on Christianity. Rather, he used the New Testament’s own central teaching — that faith when forced brings no salvation — to stop the state from imposing one official religion. He persuaded the rulers to get out of the business of religion not for the sake of a more secular society but a more authentically Christian one.

Locke couldn’t have attempted a more radical confrontation with religious orthodoxy in pre-modern Europe any more than Saudi women could with their Islamic theocrats today. Doing so would have meant certain death for him and a likely public whipping for Saudi firebrands. More crucially, it would have justified a draconian crackdown, quashing their movements in infancy. By contrast, advocating reforms based on a system’s own terms often makes it easier to win over moderates and build a critical mass of supporters. Such tactics also allow the internal contradictions in oppressive systems to build overtime, generating change peacefully without the social disruptions produced by revolutionary movements launched in the name of abstract principles of justice and rights.

Before launching the campaign to lift the driving ban, for example, Saudi women had persuaded the king that the “social rights” granted to them by Islam means that they should be able to vote and run for office. But this means that when these rights go into effect in 2015, elected women will be able to control the reins of power but not a steering wheel to drive to the state capitol. This will make the ban not just unfair but absurd. When it inevitably dies, it’ll snowball into other reforms, weakening patriarchy from the inside.

In the past, Saudi Arabia’s morality police has gotten away with harassing and humiliating women because it has positioned itself as the guardian of country’s Islamic values. The new sharia-based argument against the driving ban wrests this moral high ground and hoists the guardians on their own petard. That’s why it is more likely to succeed than invocation of Western notions of rights and justice.