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Religion, patriarchy and cars in Saudi Arabia

Abdullah Hamidaddin

Published: Updated:

The countdown begins; October 26th is just eight days away. That is when a demonstration is set to take place, rallying for women’s right to drive cars in Saudi Arabia.

Twenty three years ago, in 1990, the first driving demonstration took place. It didn’t end well for those who participated. The main reason for that failure had to do with the timing. Iraq had invaded Kuwait, and the Saudi government was facing an existential threat like no other. Its main priority was to keep the home front intact. Not an easy feat for anyone familiar with the politics of Saudi Arabia. Many of its vital constituency was against an American lead alliance that would protect Saudi Arabia from Iraq and restore Kuwait to its people. The Saudi government was frantic in its efforts to convince that constituency. Time was of the essence. Focus was a matter of life and death. Distractions were not to be tolerated. So when some women took to the streets in a peaceful driving demonstration, the only option was to crack down on them. And let’s be real here, when national security is threatened personal freedoms are always curbed, even in the most liberal and democratic countries.

The second attempt to organize a demonstration came just over two years ago. Manal al-Sharief and other women organized a social media campaign designating the June 17, 2011 as the date for another driving demonstration. Here again the timing was not proper. It was during the fervor of the so called “Arab Spring.” The Saudi government, and most of the population, were worried that instability would spill into their country. A unified home front was vital. To be sure, there was no threat of widespread popular protest against the government, but there was the possibility of some unrest caused by some of the radicals in the country. Thus the government was not open to any demands for change at the time lest the change be overtaken by the radicals. So once more the driving demonstration was repressed.

Now we have a third demonstration coming up. The timing seems to be better. But no one really knows what goes on backstage in Saudi politics. However, there are reasons to be optimistic. The head of the traffic police stated that if a woman was found driving she would only be given a ticket for driving without a license. This is an indication that driving for women is not principally banned. Also many women have driven cars and uploaded videos of themselves in the streets of Jeddah and Riyadh. Such a public expression would not be made had the government not already eased its stance on the issue.

Religion vs. Religion

Since the October 26 was designated a driving day for women, there has been much debate amongst Saudis about the matter. Most of the debate has been on religious grounds. On one side you have those people citing the various fatwas that prohibit women from driving. And on the other side you have those who counter those fatwas with other fatwas that do not prohibit women from driving.

As far as most people are concerned, the issue of women driving is not a matter of religion and it will not be solved by religion

Abdullah Hamidaddin

The fatwas prohibiting driving are based on three premises: The first is that what potentially leads to sin is sinful. The second is that it is the duty of the society to prohibit what potentially leads to sin if the individual does not stop on his/her own account. And the third is that if women drove this would lead to sin.

So, in essence no Saudi scholar actually says that driving is prohibited for its own sake. Rather for what driving potentially leads to. So if women were living in a “women’s-only-city” those same scholars wouldn’t prohibit those women from driving.

You should be wondering now about the sins which driving leads to. Well, they include gender mixing, going out without a male chaperone, seducing men, unveiling, and the worst of all: Westernization of Saudi Arabia.

Then you may want to ask why driving should lead to those sins? Here I have no answer. The causal relationship makes absolutely no sense to me. Actually the whole argument is obscene and ludicrous. But there some people who seem to see the connection between a women driving and a society corrupted to the core.

Whatever the case may be; those who oppose the logic of those fatwas prohibiting driving present other arguments of a religious nature. They say that the women in the Prophet’s era used to “drive” camels and mules. And sometimes they try to cite benefits of women driving to balance the aforementioned sins. Other times they try to negotiate the causal relationship, insisting that it does not exist. Once more I see the whole counter argument as offensive and absurd. To actually cite the use of camels and mules 1,400 years ago is an insult; even if it is cited for a fair cause. It simply does not make sense to demand a right using a twisted logic. It is an embarrassment.

I summed up the logic of those prohibiting women from driving to show that it is NOT about religion. It is about how some people see the social world and the way they create causal relationships between social phenomena. The fact that religious language is used to express that Social-World View does not mean that the issue is religious. So if you want to understand why some people prohibit driving do not explore their religious logic, rather probe their view of the social world around them. And if you want to argue with those who prohibit driving, don’t go around citing camel “driving;” rather, focus on the underlying view that shapes the detractor’s point of view.

The challenge of Saudi patriarchy

Having said that, I want to mention something much more important.

A lay observer of Saudi Arabia may think that until the religious debate is settled women will not be able to drive. That is not the case. The debate on the religiosity of the issue concerns a very small segment of the population. As far as most people are concerned, this is not a matter of religion and it will not be solved by religion. If the mufti were to come out today and issue a fatwa - endorsed by the last zealot in Saudi Arabia - stating that driving was permissible, women would still not drive on that account. Not until an important constituency is psychologically ready for that. And when that constituency is ready women will drive even if the mufti and every religious institution in the country insist that driving is a sin. Religion is NOT the central player in this issue. Rather, religion is the arena where a more fundamental issue is being negotiated.

Now, please bear with me as I explain this crucial matter.

The matter of the fact is that the Saudi leadership wants women to drive. More often than not government officials state that this is a matter for the society to decide, and not for the government. Some people take such a statement cynically. After all Saudi Arabia is a monarchy, an absolute one for that, and thus the matter of women driving can be solved with a scratch of a pen. Well, it is not as simple as that. The reality is that the Saudi leadership has to deal with a strong constituency that opposes the mobility of women. That opposition is not for religious grounds; rather it is an opposition stemming from a rigid patriarchal culture. And if you look into the history of the country since the late 1920s you would clearly see that the Saudi government had always been extra careful in its decisions that challenge the social patriarchal order while it has always been bold in challenging the religious institutions. For example, the Saudi government modernized its financial system even though it was committing grave sins in allowing “usurious” financial transactions. Here, it was challenging the religious institutions and not the social patriarchal order. On the other hand, the government treads lightly whenever it seeks to modernize something related to women simply because it challenges the social patriarchal order of Saudi Arabia.

And when it does want to modernize the situation of women, it does not coerce society and, particularly, its vital constituency. It does not go and tell them this has to happen whether you like it or not. Instead it allows a religious debate to take place; and that debate softens the stances of those who are rigid in their patriarchy. The reason is that it is easier to debate diminishing an authority of a patriarch by using a religious language than to debate it using the language of “rights.” A father is more likely to give in to a religious logic that demands he give in certain authoritarian privileges than he would give in to an official imperative. Not that this father is religious in anyway, rather that it is easier for him to tell himself that he gave in to God and not to the coercion of the government.

Talking religion to negotiate patriarchy

What I am saying here, is that the use of religious language in the issue of driving is NOT because religion is the factor which will determine the outcome, rather it is the medium which can carry the government’s desire into the hearts and minds of its people. If the government believes that there are enough Saudis who will not feel threatened by their women becoming independent in their mobility then it would push the matter much further and faster. But it will not strain the patriarchal order to a breaking point; nor should it in the view of most Saudis.

A simple cost benefit would tell you that it is better to slowly bend the patriarchal order, than to break it. I am not saying that I agree with that order, or with its repressiveness against women, but it would be stupid of me to say that breaking it is the solution.

Before we discuss religious discourse on driving we must first understand its role in shaping the decision on this issue. We should not be asking if the fatwas are correct or not. We should be asking how religious “talk” makes it easier for the government to change a tough patriarchal order.

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Abdullah Hamidaddin is a writer and commentator on religion, Middle Eastern societies and politics with a focus on Saudi Arabia and Yemen. He is currently a PhD candidate in King’s College London. He can be followed on Twitter: @amiq1

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