How Saudi women driving has changed gender discourse in the West

Eve Dugdale
Eve Dugdale - Special to Al Arabiya English
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Just recently an American website described how westerners often discussed women’s rights in Saudi Arabia from a pitying perspective, which creates an air of superiority.

Writing for, Kayla Stewart mentioned how it was “kind of the pot calling the kettle black,” adding: “With European countries like Ireland just reversing laws that prohibit abortions and America currently grappling with a pervasive culture of sexual assault, it’s clear that all nations are still learning how to treat its women like equals.”

It was an interesting take on a situation which has been in the global spotlight quite a lot recently with women finally being able to get behind the wheel legally in Saudi next week.

But how do Saudi nationals feel about that perspective? Do they feel that they’re pitied?

Prominent Saudi dermatologist Doctor Lillian Khan believes they are.

She says: “A woman’s situation in Saudi has always been unique. I think to westerners, because they haven’t been raised in this society, they don’t understand it. Like any society there is good and bad. And all improvements are always, as with any society, welcomed.

“Westerners always talk about the need to empower women in Saudi Arabia because they look to us in their eyes. But we women in Saudi Arabia have been empowered in our own way. We live under the umbrella of Islam and the Saudi heritage that we don’t want to lose. We need improvements in certain aspects like any society - look at the “time’s up“ movement in USA . For instance like being our own guardian because in order to be part of a modern world it has become essential but it has to be done when society is accepting of it.

Many Saudi women don’t want to lose the guardianship rule because they feel safety being cared for.

“So, in our society, things are better changed when many are ready for it. We are a culture that is very proud of its heritage and we don’t want to lose all of it just because the western world thinks we should. It has to be done in our way and in our time.”

From ethical pedestal to empowerment

Echoing Dr Khan’s sentiments, PR and marketing pro Yaser Alamoodi says he feels that the sense of pity does nothing to help women in the Kingdom.

He explains: “Aside from religion, there is nothing that brings a greater degree of tension between Saudi and western relations than the issue of women.

“For Saudis, the issue of women driving was one of, if not the most embarrassing notion, that Saudis felt very self-conscious about and it was a question many of us found ourselves having to answer all the time. People would ask why can’t women drive to the extent where it became more of an issue than how come men can marry four wives or how come women have to wear the veil. Women and gender-related issues became a big huge brush that painted the whole of Saudi so not matter what kind of progress you’re making in political rights, religious tolerance, economic development and technological advancements, women was always the issue that overshadowed everything else.”

Yaser says he and many of his friends felt an “ongoing sense of embarrassment” about this issue and says that many felt this pity only came from westerners who assumed a tone of moral outrage as though they were stood on “some ethical pedestal telling other people what is right or wrong”.

He adds: “The people who fully support women’s empowerment and gender equity within Saudi society still feel a sense of hurt and concern that the voices and the rationale behind them are disingenuous or motivated by political or ideological agendas or even they’re racially motivated. It’s observed that people often use us as ”the other”, a vehicle by which they would look at themselves as a mirror to make themselves feel more morally superior in the sense that how do you make yourself feel better? By looking at other populations who are less fortunate. It becomes not a genuine concern for women’s rights as much as a vehicle to boost your own self-esteem and pride.

“This moral righteousness and outrage does get you a lot of publicity but at the same time, the very population you are trying to influence and affect positive change, you instead make them feel disillusioned.”

‘Spare the pity’

Saudi businesswoman and fitness instructor Fatima Batook believes people should spare their pity for those who need it.

With women holding positions in the Shura Council, Saudi females being allowed to enter sports stadiums and the country hosting its first ever concert headlined by a woman last year, Fatima believes the country is moving in the right direction.

She says: “The situation for women in Saudi is improving big time. We are witnessing changing times where women have a bigger role in society. She’s not only a mother and wife or daughter, she’s welcomed to participate in any area and will be supported by men and women alike to make a positive change in whatever industry she’s in. Saudi has opened up a lot to women and many opportunities have blossomed for women to reap now.”

Fatima, who owns the sportswear brand TIMA as well as fitness studios across the Kingdom, says Saudi women are going from strength to strength.

She says: “We have Saudi women in roles that are very influential in the Saudi stock market and actually some very powerful women may be affecting global stock markets too. Women have been always in big roles but were hidden, now we are at a time where they can stand without fear in public attending to their roles and responsibilities.”

And while Fatima believes there is “always room for improvement for women’s empowerment” she says women being given the right to drive has made her excited for what the future will bring.

Before women were granted permission to drive they were always subject to a male’s availability and mood and it meant they were completely dependent. The move to allow women behind the wheel means the next generation of girls and boys won’t grow up with this discrimination.

She adds: “We will have a generation that understands equal rights which will improve the male/female relationship so there’s no superiority and this will build trust and respect.”

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