May 29, 2011

Women driving in Saudi Arabia? I give up.

A Saudi woman was recently arrested for driving without a license. Actually, no Saudi woman has a driver's license since it illegal for women to drive in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The woman, 32-year-old Manal al-Sharif, posted a video (above) on YouTube and Facebook of herself driving a car in the city of al-Khubar (Khobar) in the Eastern Province of the kingdom.

In the video, Manal carries on an animated conversation with a female passenger who is obviously operating the camera. The conversation mainly revolves around how the driving restrictions affect the lives of women and their families. It is in pretty fast and idiomatic Saudi Arabic - it gives me the impression that the woman making the video is not a close friend and possibly a journalist.

Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that does not allow women to drive. The stated reasons range from the religious to the ridiculous. Over the years, I have spent a lot of time in "the magic kingdom," as we Middle East specialists call Saudi Arabia. I have yet to get an acceptable, sensical answer from a Saudi. When an actual law was passed in 1990 to codify the ban, the reason given by the Ministry of the Interior was "Islamic tradition." The statement read, "Women's driving of cars contradicts the sound Islamic attitude of the Saudi citizen, who is jealous about his sacred ideals."

What does that mean? I have asked several Saudis to explain it to me. One of the more popular explanations is that allowing women to drive would allow them to succumb to their natural base instincts and carnal desires. A vehicle would allow them to engage in illicit sexual activity.

I challenged that assumption on several levels. First, Saudi men seem to have a low opinion of the moral character of not only Saudi women but women in general. Second, I told them that I knew for a fact that prohibiting women from driving does not stop them from having affairs.

When I was assigned to the U.S. Central Command in Riyadh during Desert Shield and Desert Storm, Saudi (and Kuwaiti) women made it clear that the driving ban was not going to get in their way. For example, I noted that even in the intense heat, many Saudis would drive in the city with their front passenger windows open. When I asked a more enlightened Saudi about this practice, he explained that the window was open for women to toss calling cards into the vehicle. The recipient, if interested, would call the number on the card and the woman would have her driver pick up the man and drive him to a rendezvous location. At times, I also saw Saudi women drop calling cards as they walked by young men - same idea. The Kuwaiti women in Saudi Arabia were less subtle - they would just hand you the card.

Because I could speak Arabic, I had the unenviable task of being a liaison between the American military and the Saudi Ministry of Defense and Aviation. One of the first issues that came up was American military women and driving. Initially, the Saudis said that the women servicemembers would not be permitted to drive in the kingdom. I explained that many U.S. Army transportation battalions had women drivers and that without the women it would be impossible to move the massive amounts of men and materiel that were being brought into the country to defend against a possible Iraqi invasion.

As I pointed out other examples of how women are totally integrated into the U.S. armed forces, the Saudis came up with uniquely Saudi solution. The Minister of Defense and Aviation issued a decree that American females when in U.S. military uniform were not women. I decided not to translate that literally, softening it to a statement that American military women could drive military vehicles while in uniform. It remained an irritant since they could not drive during those rare times of being off duty.

While working some long shifts with my Saudi counterparts, I often talked to a major who had graduated from Oregon State University. I once asked him if his wife drove a car while they lived in Corvallis. He replied that she did. I asked if she missed having that ability to drive now that they were back in Riyadh. He immediately replied that she did not. I countered by asking if he had actually asked her about it, or did he merely assume that she did not miss driving. He replied that he had not asked her. His exact words, "Why would I ask her a question when I already know the answer?" I gave up.

I gave up then and I give up now. The Saudi reaction to Manal's driving offense? The members of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, the mutawa'in (volunteers), have organized a campaign encouraging Saudi men to remove their 'iqal (the black rope-like cord that secures the male headdress) and use them to beat any woman who dares to drive.

What century are we in?