This month’s driving protest by Saudi women, despite significant hype and international coverage, was a far cry from the massive demonstrations that have rocked other Arab countries this revolutionary season. Only a few dozen women got behind the wheel, roughly the same number as during the last public driving protest, 20 years ago.
The government looks at the numbers and maintains, straight-faced, that women’s rights are simply not a big deal to most Saudis. The party line remains the same as King Abdullah patiently expressed to Barbara Walters in a 2005 interview: While he personally believes “strongly in the rights of women,” he said, he would not issue a royal decree to allow them to drive. “I cannot do something that is unacceptable in the eyes of my people.”
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.
This time around, Manal al-Sharif, the woman arrested in May for posting videos of herself driving, was quickly lauded as the “Rosa Parks of Saudi Arabia.” The Facebook group she created, Women2Drive, had more than 20,000 members within a few weeks. It is no surprise that she and Wajeha al-Huwaider, the two most prominent female leaders of the Women2Drive campaign, have both been employed by Saudi Aramco, the national oil company, which plays an important role in Saudi modernization.
Saudi critics have mocked the Women2Drive campaign and disparaged its leaders for being divorced and Shiite. A dueling Facebook site called Iqal— after the Arabic word for the cord that holds in place the headdress that men in the Persian Gulf region traditionally wear — urged men to beat women with the cord if they dared to drive. The site was taken off Facebook for inciting violence, but not before thousands “liked” it.
Some Saudi women have also spoken out against driving and, indeed, against any expansion of women’s rights. Rawdah Al-Yousif, for example, is the Phyllis Schlafly of Saudi Arabia. She launched a movement in 2009 called My Guardian Knows What’s Best for Me.
She argues that Islamic law and Saudi customs mandate the rules that require women to have a guardian’s permission to do many essential activities, including accessing government offices such as courts, traveling, studying, seeking employment and getting health care. Her organization is headed by two princesses who, in a Saudi version of let-them-eat-cake, argue that life is easier when men take care of these tasks. Yousif calls her liberal opponents “ignorant and vexatious,” and she posted a video on Twitter describing the driving activists as “Westernized rich brats.”
However, several prominent men have urged in opinion pieces that women be allowed to drive, and some outspoken members of the advisory Shura Council have criticized the driving ban in economic terms. They decry the need to import nearly 1 million foreign chauffeurs, who send home more than $4 billion in annual remittances, as a drain on the Saudi economy. Important business leaders have stressed the inefficiencies caused by the ban and acknowledge that it is an embarrassment to them on the international stage.
Even some moderate Islamic scholars have stated that there is no religious justification for preventing women from driving.
One battle to repress women has already been lost. In the early 1960s, clerics strenuously fought girls’ education, arguing that it would start the country down a slippery slope from which there was no return. They were right. Today, some 60 percent of the college graduates in Saudi Arabia are women, and increasingly they clamor for more than the 5 percent of jobs they hold. Several universities now offer engineering degrees for women.
The female leaders who fought for those opportunities often said the driving debate was a distraction from their larger concerns. But recent events seem to have changed the minds of some. Saudi journalist and activist Sabria Jawhar says that while she used to think that the endless driving debate was trivial, now “the driving ban is no longer a distraction to Saudi women’s quest for their rights, but could very well be the centerpiece of our struggle to obtain rights long denied us.”
She is right. The clerical establishment will not roll over on this issue or on any others pertaining to women’s rights. So Saudi women — and men — will have to fight for them and force the royals to choose sides. The kingdom’s octogenarian rulers have aligned with the clerics: Abdullah, widely seen as a reformer, made clear long ago that he was interested in only incremental changes for women, and his powerful half-brother, Interior Minister Prince Nayef, who oversees the religious police, takes an even harder line. (He was seen as responsible for arresting and detaining Manal al-Sharif for ninedays.) The big question is: What decision will the country’s next generation of rulers make?
Isobel Coleman is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of “Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women Are Transforming the Middle East.”