The problem for the monarch now is that a lot of his people have been looking at YouTube, where the protest is amplified over and over. There, videos posted by protesters show that the world is not upended when women are in the driver’s seat. In many of the videos, husbands, fathers and brothers are sitting in the passenger seat, beaming proudly. The women are simply going about their ordinary chores — and changing conservative mores along the way, as the very public debate over the protests makes clear.
Saudi restrictions on women are not going to melt away. More likely, a growing middle-class acceptance of women’s rights, promoted by activists, business leaders, educators, journalists and even moderate religious leaders, will exacerbate the long-simmering tensions between tradition and modernity, between fundamentalist and moderate Islam, that have gripped Saudi society for decades.
Why? Because control over women is at the heart of the harsh version of Islam that Saudi theocracy imposes on the country.
The 18th-century bargain struck between Muhammad ibn Saud, a direct forefather of today’s ruling Sauds, and Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab, the eponymous “Wahhabi,” persists: The Sauds have political control of the country, and the descendents of Wahhab exert social and religious control.
As revolutions swept the region this spring, Saudi Arabia’s ruling clerics offered up helpful fatwas and sermons against public demonstrations and in support of the monarchy. In return, the religious establishment was richly rewarded with about $200 million to their organizations, according to the New York Times. The Saudi government is not about to anger religious conservatives at this tenuous time by going soft on the touchstone issue of women’s rights.
But the Sauds’ bargain with the clerics that sustains the nation’s medieval system will become increasingly unsustainable as more and more Saudis question the restrictions imposed on them in the name of religion.
Twenty years ago, when the first group of intrepid women protested by driving around Riyadh, they were roundly denounced in the press and labeled “whores” and “infidels.” Those working in the public sector were fired from their jobs by royal decree. The leading religious authorities quickly issued fatwas formally banning women from driving, saying it contradicts Islam by degrading women’s dignity.