Stirring stagnant Saudi waters

When is it OK to oppress women? When the oppressor is a key ally and trade partner, answers Eddie Ford

In what has been described as the most organised and open political campaign ever seen in Saudi Arabia, at least 60 woman held a day of action on October 26 against the ban on female driving. No other country in the world enforces such a prohibition, yet, when it comes to driving, just like every other area of life, women in Saudi Arabia are crushed under the weight of oppressive, ultra-patriarchal laws. For example, Saudi women need permission from a male guardian to travel, work or marry and in public must always wear a headscarf and an abaya, a black cloak covering the body.

Sure, yes, the women may not have formed a disciplined convoy driving through the central heart of Riyadh, banners blazing. Rather it was more a case of taking a short trip down the road. For instance, a YouTube video shows May al-Sawyan committing the crime of leaving her apartment without a male chaperone, getting into the family car and driving to the small supermarket near her home to buy groceries: she wore sunglasses and her hair was covered by the traditional black headscarf worn by Saudi women, but her face was otherwise visible. There are other clips of women driving in defiance of the ban in Riyadh, al- Ahsa and Jeddah.

In the context of Saudi Arabia what would be regarded as perfectly normal elsewhere is a brave and rebellious act that could possibly land the perpetrator in prison. For Saudi women though the driving ban is a particularly potent symbol of oppression. ‘Respectable’ middle class women in Saudi Arabia, needless to say, do not travel by public transport (insofar as there is any) - that is for the likes of Bengali or Filipino migrant workers. Therefore they have to wait for a male family member to drive them anywhere. A daily humiliation, in other words - not to mention massively inconvenient. Naturally, rich Saudi women do not have the same problem - they can call on a driver any time that suits, though no doubt many of them will still resent the restriction on their freedom. Women remain permanent minors in the eyes of the Saudi regime.

The ‘October 26 driving for women’ group has used social media networks to publicise the issue with considerable aplomb. Activists say they have over 16,000 signatures on an online petition calling for an end to the driving ban. Almost inevitably, the group’s website, ‘oct26driving.org’, was hacked into on October 27 and at the time of writing is still inaccessible.

No concessions

There have been two previous campaigns to overturn the ban, which both fizzled out after arrests for various ‘public order’ offences. Back in 1990, 47 women drove through Riyadh and Madeha al-Ajroush, a New York-educated psychotherapist, was one of them. In her own words: “The reaction was incredibly violent. Religious clerics saw us and went mad, they started screaming and hitting my car at the traffic lights.” She was not imprisoned but was immediately sacked - other women lost their jobs too or had their passports rescinded in punishment. In June 2011 there was a similar protest.

So far, however, there appear to be no cracks in the Saudi edifice - quite the opposite, if anything. All petitions on the matter sent to the royal court have either been ignored or flatly rejected, while proposals for female traffic officers and driving instructors have not even reached the floor of the Shura ‘advisory council’. True, at the beginning of the month, three female members of the Shura - among the 30 women appointed in January by the 90-year-old dictator, king Abdullah bin Abdulaziz bin Saud - recommended that the ban be rescinded (it is worth noting that female Shura members must enter the building via separate gates). They urged the council to “recognise the rights” of women to drive a car in “accordance with the principles of sharia and traffic laws”. Yet no formal debate on the question has yet taken place or even being scheduled - absolutely no sign of movement.

In fact, far from making concessions, the regime has actually toughened its rhetoric. Two days before the October 26 protest, an interior ministry spokesman warned that the kingdom’s laws “prohibit activities disturbing the public peace” which “only serve the senseless, the ill-intentioned, intruders and opportunity hunters” - such laws would also be used against those who dare “demonstrate in support” of the female drivers. Meanwhile, the BBC has seen an official document advising police on how to handle women drivers.

Naturally, the most conservative and reactionary sections of Saudi society are up in arms - something must be done. Last week 150 clerics and religious scholars held a rare public protest outside the king’s palace in Jeddah to object to “westernisation”. They accused the United States, normally a byword in traditionalist circles for anything distasteful or immoral, of being behind the driving campaign. Indeed, if this “conspiracy of women” was allowed to succeed, it would spread “licentiousness” like a moral disease - even pose a direct “threat” to the kingdom and Islamic civilisation itself. John Knox’s “monstrous regiment of women” all over again - only this time in 2013 as opposed to 1558. One prominent cleric, sheikh Saleh bin Saad al- Lohaidan, claimed “medical studies” show that if a woman drives a car it “automatically affects the ovaries” and “pushes the pelvis upwards”, resulting in “negative physiological impacts”. Reassuring to know that Saudi medical science is so cutting edge.

The unfortunate reality is that the kingdom of Saud has over the years become more repressive, not less - even allowing for tokenistic female members of the Shura. This conservative stance hardened under the impact of the Iranian revolution/counterrevolution - fearful for its own continued existence, the dynastic regime has resisted virtually all attempts at reform, no matter how modest.

Having said that, so far none of the female drivers or their supporters have been arrested. Doubtless the high level of publicity generated by the October 26 group has made the authorities a little reluctant to crack down too hard and too quickly - but that could easily change. However, campaigners regard the day of action as a partial victory. They are optimistic about the prospects for the driving campaign, and the struggle for women’s rights in general, despite the grim objective situation.


There have been other recent battles against women’s oppression. Campaigners have been calling on the regime to overturn the 10-month jail sentences imposed at the end of September on the two founders of the Association for the Protection and Defence of Women’s Rights in Saudi Arabia, which in 2008 launched a ‘No to the oppression of women’ campaign.

They fell foul of the authorities two years ago when taking up the case of a woman who complained of serious abuse by her husband. They responded to her text message complaining that her husband had left her and her children at home without food or water and asking for help. But when they went to her apartment the two women were arrested and charged with “attempted kidnap”. It seems that the text message had actually been sent in order to entrap them. Although the kidnap charge was quickly dropped, the two were eventually found guilty of takhbib - inciting a wife to defy her husband’s authority.

October 21 saw Saudi Arabia come under fire at the United Nations, with critics condemning the kingdom for jailing activists “without due process” and “abusing” the basic rights of Saudi women and foreign workers. There were calls for the abolition of the Saudi system of male guardianship and “concern” expressed at the “restrictions” on freedoms of religion and association, whilst others called for a “moratorium” on the use of the death penalty. Responding, the president of the Saudi Human Rights Commission, Bandar bin Mohammed al-Aiban, farcically maintained that the country was “taking all steps” to protect the rights of both women and migrant workers - like a ban on outdoor work between midday and 3pm from June to August, when temperatures are usually higher than 40 degrees. Very generous. With regard to women’s rights, we learnt from al-Aiban that sharia law “guarantees” gender equality and that Saudi women are “full citizens” able to dispose of their property and manage their affairs without seeking permission from anyone.

True to form has been the staggering hypocrisy of the west over Saudi Arabia. Part of the justification for imperialist intervention in Afghanistan and elsewhere was the need to protect and defend women’s rights. There has even been talk from William Hague that support for the anti-Assad opposition in Syria will lead to an “improvement” in women’s rights. So where are the loud messages of solidarity for the October 26 group from William Hague, or Harriet Harman for that matter? You must be joking. Wretchedly, Hague just mutters that the UK does a “lot” of business with Saudi Arabia, and, of course, it would be foolish to jeopardise valuable contracts.

In reality, as everyone knows, Saudi Arabia is supporting the most reactionary and fanatical elements in the Syrian opposition - ditto in Iraq, where there has been another wave of deadly sectarian attacks targeting Shi’ite-majority areas. Women’s oppression would surely intensify under the control of such Saudi-backed groups - groups that are indirectly armed by the west.