Saudi Women Driving: A Counter View
In the wake of the un-ending debate about women driving, as a college professor in Saudi Arabia, I have a bird’s eye view of what many Saudi men are saying over the issue.
Many people on both sides of this emotional argument only see what they perceive to be important to their side of the problem—and that ‘right’ is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ is ‘wrong’. It reminds me of the perennial slap-stick movie gag about a guy who demands to have a closet door opened after ignoring the attempts of his companion to warn him of the impending avalanche of content waiting to bury him.
Most Saudi male students I’ve talked to about it for the last several terms do not have any trouble with women driving. The real issue is the lack of serious enforcement of traffic laws – something most westerners seldom factor into the problem. It is perhaps the true reason why females in the Kingdom do not have driving privileges.
The reality of most impeccably covered Saudi woman walking the streets; or even being driven around by the family driver, is that most excursions are usually a perilous undertaking. This is the reason Riyadh and cities like it have ‘ladies’ or ‘family only’ malls with rent-a-cops to keep the free grazing ‘shebob’ (male youth) from harassing women shoppers.
The majority of the Saudi population (percentage wise) are hormonal teenage boys driven crazy by the notion that they need to wait until some time in their 30’s to get hitched and then come up with an obscenely high bride price to get to the alter after that. Outside their tribe, women (young or old) are fair game for being proposition by unmarried Saudi boys as can be seen in this video.
As you might notice in the 26 second video, a young woman is strolling through traffic down a busy street in the city (cities in Saudi typically have no sidewalks; thereby making any lengthy walk a street maneuver through traffic). Despite being accompanied by a small boy (usually an indication she is spoken for), you would think she was wearing a bikini by the racket they are making. Saudi and expat women take a surprising amount of heat in a country where religious police roam the streets looking for violators of the public moral scruples.
While discussing the issue with one of my students, he related the following story:
“I put on an Abaya and had a non-Saudi friend drive me through the streets of downtown Jeddah one night. I sat in the back and rolled down the window half way so they could see that (besides the driver) I was alone. As we drove, boys jeered and whistled at me from cars and on the street. Boys in cars tried to force us to pull over. They pleaded to talk; begged to get in and screamed obscene comments. Six cars chased us to the beach front in Abhor where we finally pulled over. I jumped out and took off my Abaya. They scattered like bugs when you turn on the light. It was really funny.”
Many students also admit that if the women in their family were involved in an accident, they would be compelled by an honor to exact revenge—a custom that is practiced within tribal circles; back streets and beyond serious concern or attention of the local police and the jurisdiction of Saudi courts. Knowing how Saudi boys love their moms, such a situation could give Saudi its first murder rate statistic, letting women drive now could be the beginning of the end to the relative security residence experience on Saudi streets.
Contrary to popular belief, women driving in Saudi Arabia is not a human rights cause—but largely a social one.
If this is indeed the case, the solution should be addressed not as a human rights violation where big; bad men are oppressing weak; defenseless women —but as problem that can be easily solved through modifying certain environmental factors.
In Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point: How little Things Can Make a Big Difference, he explains how changes in an environment can make significant differences in the way people act or how they see things.
In an interview with NPR Radio in America, Gladwell attributes the dramatic decrease in crime in New York in recent years to certain environmental changes. He believes that cleaning up the New York Subway and posting police to keep people from jumping the turnstiles created a ‘tipping point’ that caused the crime rate to drop. He said by using the “Power of Context” small changes can generate big ones. In brief, Gladwell says if you show people that someone cares about what is going on and maintain the surroundings accordingly, people will change their behavior. To paraphrase Muhammad Qutb, people want to do right, but they need imposed restrictions (laws and rules) to help them to do it.
With Gladwell’s theory in mind, I believe the following measures would create the conditions for a ‘tipping point’—that is, a context where women could drive in Saudi Arabia:
• Police need to enforce all traffic laws. If you are increasing the number of inexperienced drivers on the roads, the police need to make sure everyone obeys the rules so that everyone can obey the rules. As a licensed driver in Saudi, I find myself many times disobeying the law to keep from having an accident on a road where anything goes.
• The tribalism that conditions people to be merely concerned with their own and that of their relatives rather than the general public good is a socio-psychological pillar of the Bedouin mindset. Community leaders and schools should try to change this way of thinking by supporting a more civic prospective to public well being in all school through the college level. Besides giving lip service to the idea, this change to a more community-centered approach to life in Saudi could be initiated by the current anti-littering campaign if it is vigorously supported and modeled by police, community leaders and even the crown.
• Police need to be in the community (walking or bike patrols) as a deterrent to the street justice everyone in the Saudi ‘hood’ practices because police aren’t around. In a society where family honor is a big deal, having someone around that could catch you in the act usually is enough to keep undesirable behavior in check.
Since Saudi religious conservatives aren’t budging on the matter of women driving (perhaps rightfully so, but that’s not the subject of this article), maybe a more practical; tactful and more patient approach should be considered.
Opening the door to a situation without fully considering the consequences could cause an avalanche of problems and ills that may cause more harm than good.
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