By Amitabh Pal
Freedom From Religion Foundation
When I visited Saudi Arabia in June 2002 with a group of journalists, the regime assured us that the ban on women drivers would be lifted within a few months.
I suppose the notion of time must get warped in a theocracy, since this outrageous prohibition was finally revoked on Tuesday, more than 15 years after my trip. (And the repeal won’t be implemented until next June because, as The New York Times reports with a straight face, “The kingdom has no infrastructure for women to learn to drive or to obtain drivers licenses.”)
It seems a country lives in an earlier century when it’s governed by a religious text. The Saudi Constitution is essentially the Quran. When that is the basis of your legal system, you’re bound to be in big trouble.
Due to this peculiar situation they’ve boxed themselves into, Saudi officials constantly trot out the excuse that they are unable to implement reforms because the clerics have all the power. This is a falsehood I was also fed — an evasion that doesn’t withstand scrutiny.
“King issues royal decree to do it, which he could have done all these years,” British analyst Mehdi Hasan tweets. “Saudi apologists lied and said it was in the hands of the ulema.”
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What’s worse is that the men who govern the desert kingdom pick and choose those religious laws that reinforce patriarchy while disregarding those they regard as impediments to themselves. For instance, a Saudi official confirmed to me that the reigning monarchy has ignored the Quranic injunction against usury so that banks can charge interest. In other words, religion cannot be allowed to get in the way of profits, but when it comes to women, all bizarre religious diktats must be interpreted in the most regressive way possible.
This is why there’s still a long way to go before the country achieves any semblance of gender equality.
“Women activists in Saudi Arabia are celebrating after King Salman issued a decree allowing women in the kingdom to drive for the first time,” comments Human Rights Watch. “However, the country’s odious male guardianship system is still firmly in place, so women in Saudi remain at the mercy of their male relatives if they wish to travel abroad, marry, work or get health care.”
The constant U.S. obeisance to such an odious regime makes matters much worse. And this genuflection is truly bipartisan. The one act that Presidents Obama and Trump have both engaged in, literally, is bowing before the Saudi king.
During a visit to Saudi Arabia in May, Ivanka Trump had the gall to claim that the country’s progress on women’s rights was “very encouraging” (even as she added the disclaimer that “there’s still a lot of work to be done”).
Saudi feminist Manal al-Sharif, the author of “Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening,” had an appropriately sharp response.
“What type of progress in women’s rights?” she told The New York Times. “I wish she was more specific so I wouldn’t feel insulted. If you don’t want to support us, just stay quiet. Don’t praise. You’re making it worse for us.”
Naturally, the U.S. obsequiousness toward the monarchy is to ensure a cheap supply of Saudi oil — but it is only partly about the oil. It is also about the huge amount of weapons that the Saudis regularly purchase from the United States. (And it is about other things, too, such as the proxy dirty work that the Saudis are willing to engage in for the United States.)
I personally experienced the absurd length to which the United States is willing to apologize for the behavior of its overzealous friend. A U.S. diplomat my group interviewed in Saudi Arabia cheerfully told us that the driving ban was actually a blessing for Saudi women, since they could luxuriate in having men chauffeur them everywhere!
U.S. acquiescence not only gives the Saudi monarchy a free hand to impose the hardline Wahhabi model on its own people, it also gives it a license to propagate this version of Islam worldwide on the strength of its oil money. From Indonesia and South Asia to the Balkans and North Africa, the Saudis are busy undermining pluralism and tolerance.
The Saudi regime exists in such a different realm that some of us are celebrating a government granting its citizens a basic right. Many are not willing to.
“Sorry, but a freedom granted at the whim of male monarchs who use Islam to justify misogyny is like a bow on a pair of handcuffs,” tweets activist and journalist Rafia Zakaria.
Still, certain Saudi campaigners are welcoming the move as a promising sign.
“One of Saudi Arabia’s most vocal women’s rights activists says the decision to allow women to drive is a ‘great first step,’” AP reports. “Aziza Youssef told The Associated Press by phone from Riyadh that she was ‘really excited’ about Tuesday’s announcement, calling it a ‘good step forward for women’s rights.’ Youssef, a professor at King Saud University, says women will continue to push for an end to male guardianship laws that remain in place, which give male relatives the final say on issues like the right of women to travel abroad, obtain a passport and marry.”
That is what provides me with hope about the country. During my visit there, my colleagues and I met with several dynamic Saudi women. This half of the population (along with menfolk who don’t stand in the way) will now better be able to slowly but surely steer it into the Enlightenment era. That’s why the lifting of the driving ban is reason for a (muted) cheer.