Saudi Arabia’s oppression of women goes way beyond its ban on driving

October 28, 2013

A Saudi woman sits behind the wheel of a car in Riyadh. (EPA/STR)

For the second time in three years, dozens of Saudi women are getting behind the wheel to protest their country's practice of forbidding driver's licenses for women. The de facto ban on female drivers is Saudi Arabia's best-known restriction against women, a symbol of the larger system of gender-based law that makes it one of the worst countries for women, according to the World Economic Forum's annual report on gender rights.

Saudi Arabia's restrictions on women go far, far beyond just driving, though. It's part of a larger system of customs and laws that make women heavily reliant on men for their basic, day-to-day survival. This video, produced by Amnesty U.K. in 2011, a few months after Saudi women's rights activists staged their last protest drive, helps explain just how it works to be a woman in Saudi Arabia. (Fair warning, the video has an offbeat sense of humor, which I wrote about here.)

If you couldn't make it through the video, here's the rundown: each Saudi woman has a "male guardian," typically their father or brother or husband, who has the same sort of legal power over her that a parent has over a child. She needs his formal permission to travel, work, go to school or get medical treatment. She's also dependent on him for everything: money, housing, and, because the driving ban means she needs a driver to go anywhere, even the ability to go to the store or visit a friend.

It's one thing for women to depend on men to go anywhere, putting their movement under male veto power. But it's quite another when they also must have a man's approval to travel abroad, get a job or do just about anything that involves being outside of the home. It consigns women to second-class-citizenship, which is unfortunately common in a number of countries, but goes a step further in Saudi Arabia. Saudi women have many of their most basic rights reduced to probationary privileges, granted only if the man who is assigned as their "guardian" feels like granting them. And because women are typically forbidden to interact with men who are not family members, they've got little to no recourse beyond that guardian. The almost complete lack of political rights doesn't help, either.

The restrictions go beyond the law: women are often taught from an early age to approach the world outside their male guardian's home with fear and shame. A 1980s "educational flyer" still posted at a school in Buraydah warned against the "dangers that threaten the Muslim woman," such as listening to music, going to a mixed-gender mall or answering the telephone. It drove home that "danger" with an image of a women, in a full black burqa, being stabbed in the chest with a kitchen knife.

Saudi women's rights activists get this, of course, and even though they're focusing their energy on overturning the driving ban, it's clear they see it as part of a larger effort against part of a much bigger system of oppression. The movement for driving rights that began in mid-2011 has not changed that law, but Saudi women have won some modest rights as a result, including representation in the country's officially powerless but high-visibility Shoura Council, which they're in turn using to amplify their campaign against the driving ban. Saudi women are facing a much bigger challenge than just a driving ban, as this video shows, but it also helps to show just how remarkable it is that they've accomplished as much as they in as little time.

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Max Fisher · October 28, 2013