An Ignition Key to the Kingdom

This is my current favorite picture of my twin grandson and daughter (you should be able to sort out which one is which):

So many captions! So many word balloons! I can imagine a lifetime dynamic starting here, with Brother blithely going about his business and Sister a nano-second away from dope-slapping him on the forehead.

This blog is a few hundred words long, and I’m going to provide links to articles, videos, and blogs that will total many thousand, but if you really were to take in all of it, nothing would communicate the subject, the reaction, the ramifications, the subtext, the context, the pretext, the post-text, the text itself of the topic as well as this picture. The topic?

 Women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia.

Now allow me to clarify: There is no law decreeing that women are not allowed to drive, and Saudi apologists are quick to point that out. But Saudi Arabia is a land with a different relationship to law than citizens of democratic, law-and-order societies are used to. In a land where there is no dividing line between religion and government, religious edict is given the weight of law, without any requirement that the new law be debated, tested, agreed to, or codified. Judges are clerics, so if someone wishes to challenge a law that isn’t really a law, well, good luck.

Look at the picture again. Says a lot, doesn’t it?

Manal al-Sharif

Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that doesn’t allow women to drive. That places it behind such beacons of progress as Libya, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Iran, Somalia. Two years ago, a woman by the name of Manal al-Sharif got behind the wheel and posted a YouTube video of herself driving. She encouraged other women to do so as well, which they have been. You can watch her TED talk here. Yesterday, October 26, Saudi activists planned a day of protest, calling upon women to take to the streets–in cars. Get out there and drive! Use civil disobedience to call attention to this mockery of a law!

It’s been a big topic around here lately. With the clock ticking and the groundswell growing on social media, clerics responded, and response to an absurd “law” has been, well, absurd. A Saudi sheik (credited as a “judicial and psychological consultant to the Gulf Psychological Association”) made a global laughingstock of himself a few weeks ago by declaring that driving “automatically affects ovaries and rolls up the pelvis.” (I’m curious what this rollup looks like.) He explains this is why “we find” that women who “continuously drive cars” have children with clinical disorders. You’ll enjoy the article from Al Arabiya here. (Don’t try to puzzle about the difference between the driver’s seat and the passenger’s, and never mind that some of the highest rates of genetic birth defects in the world happen right here in Saudi Arabia, where women don’t drive but do marry their first cousins.) Another gem is this video of the same thoughtful gent in action, taking himself quite seriously in a panel discussion. Watching him make these disconnected, unsupported declarations and treat them together as a logical argument is a jaw-dropper. Note the collection of Serious Gents impaneled to lend some gravitas as he grenade-launches himself through the looking glass.

Still works, doesn’t it?

Now, plenty of Saudi men are opposed to the status quo as well. My particular delight is this music video, “No Woman, No Drive,” which I found Saturday evening at the ripe old age of seven hours and 110,000 views. 13,000 had given it a thumbs-up at that point (though 2200 had voted thumbs down).

Living without freedom of movement is an experience that can’t be fully appreciated until you’ve done it. I say “freedom of movement” because plenty of people live very comfortably without cars. They do, however, usually live in walkable cities and use public transportation. Those are not options here. First, there is no public transportation–no trams, trains, or subways, and the only buses that exist are ramshackle, used only by the Pakistani, Yemeni, and Bangladeshi laborers who flag them down when they pass. Even if women were allowed, there would have to be a lot of zeroes in the dollar figure I’d accept to get on one by myself. If you don’t have a car and a man to drive it (many middle-class families employ a driver full time), then taxis, with unknown and often unlicensed drivers, are your only option. Additionally, Riyadh is not walkable for many reasons:

  • For a lot of the year, it’s too hot to be out and around during the day, particularly in a black robe.
  • The city is spread out, intended for cars. Retail businesses run along the length of major thoroughfares, with residential property filling in the large blocks behind. Retailers cluster themselves together by type, which is convenient if you’re comparison shopping for tires. However, if you live behind a block of tire retailers and need anything other than tires, you’d better get in your car and start driving. There’s no such thing as a “neighborhood” with a balanced assortment of its own retail services.
  • There are no sidewalks. Individual shops pave (or don’t pave) the few feet in front of their shops as they choose, so as you move from one business to another you’re stepping from surface to surface, at uneven heights, over rubble or dirt or broken pavement.

This first-person account gives a sense of what daily life is like for a middle-class Saudi woman living without freedom of movement. The blog mentioned in the article, which has become a collection spot for personal accounts and topical articles, is here.

It’s a little different for Westerners. I–like many expats–live in a compound, where walls shut out the Saudi world and we enjoy Western-style living inside. We have our own little market, which is fairly well stocked. We have a gym and a pool, a restaurant, a couple of beauty salons, a gift shop, and community rooms for exercise classes, craft groups, or things like baby showers or football parties. I can walk to any of them in less than five minutes. For outside errands, however, we depend on a compound bus.

Compound buses, Riyadh

We get s a monthly calendar that tells us where the bus is going every day. (The destinations are all for shopping–malls and souks–because there’s nothing else to do here.) The nearest grocery store sends a bus to the compound most days of the week to pick women up, take them to the store, and bring them and their groceries back.

There are benefits to this arrangement. Bus riding is global female bonding at its best. On one ride a few days ago, I got to laugh with women from England, Ireland, South Africa, and Australia about the stumbles we make over names for things in our different dialects. (“Pop the hood” seemed to be a particularly baffling American expression, and for my part calling the back yard the “garden” leaves me unclear about what you call the place where you plant vegetables or the paved area where you sit.) A Filipina who’s lived here for many years has been my best resource for shopping tips. A young Pakistani woman is my headscarf-tying resource, and a trip to the hypermarket gave me a chance to learn about living through the breakup of Yugoslavia from a Slovenian woman. Bless the bus.

There are also grating inconveniences to this arrangement. The bus comes and goes according to the schedule, not according to your wishes. I’ve been needing an iPad-to-HDMI connector (watching TV from the U.S. is our entertainment salvation, and we’ve grown tired of having the computer tied up), and I had to wait until the last Wednesday of the month, when the bus would be going to the particular store I needed. Right now I need light bulbs and charcoal. That’ll wait until next Tuesday. Then when you get to your destination, the clock starts ticking on the departure time. You can’t just decide the errand is a bust and leave, nor can you discover what’s there on your own time. You have to rank your shopping list and keep checking the clock because as departure time approaches, you need to head to checkout no matter what you have to eliminate from the list. You also can’t buy anything you can’t wrangle on the bus. No furniture or bags of soil.

The bus doesn’t take you to lunch, nor does it take you to a friend’s home for a visit. For those things you need to arrange for a driver. At that point, you have to estimate your pickup time–no lingering over chips at Chipotle until the conversation is finished, no bailing out when things get boring or you realize you’ve overstayed your welcome, no changes of plans to go someplace else and try the frozen yogurt. No “I’ll just make one quick stop here.” The inability to be spontaneous is a real buzz-kill.

Saudi women, however, don’t have the conveniences of the compound or its bus. Many can’t afford drivers, and (uncomfortable in taxis) are therefore stuck at home until their husbands arrive in the evenings. Watching a Saudi man leaving a home furnishings store last night with a comforter under his arm, I wondered whether Saudi men have any idea how much easier their lives would be if women could drive. What dude ever wanted to shop for a comforter? Give men a chance to taste a cold–well, O’Doul’s–and a little football on a weeknight instead of making trips to Sephora and they’ll wonder what took so long. The ramifications of not driving and the context are described well in this article from the Salt Lake Tribune.

Warnings about dire consequences for driving on October 26 led women to say that they were not holding any public gathering (forbidden and punishable), but would just be continuing to drive as they have been, posting videos of themselves driving, and that they’ll keep on doing it in the future. (Plenty also interpreted the warnings about not “disturbing the peace” to be directed to men, advising them to leave women alone.) Headlines today are mixed, but the story underneath them is consistent: a few dozen women across the kingdom claim to have driven without encountering police, and police confirm that no one was detained. My husband and I went out late Saturday afternoon to see what we could see. In our highly scientific poll of people we saw in cars beside us the tally was…zero women. But in our loop to downtown Riyadh and back we did see or go through a number of checkpoints, with traffic slowed to pass by police officers peering into the drivers’ compartments. News reports (like this LA Times article) confirmed what we saw (which admittedly didn’t photograph well in the dark):

Traffic checkpoint, al Ulaya District, Riyadh, 26 October 2013

When you’re in bed with warring parties, sometimes the best way to make it through the night is to know when to give up the covers. The checkpoints we saw were in prime high-traffic, high-visibility, Saturday-night shopping and restaurant areas during busy hours. Women who reported driving did so close to their homes, going to mundane nearby destinations or around the block a few times at mid-day. In this case, my ginormous brain has concluded that the ease-into-reform-minded king threw a bone to hardliners by making a show of force at times and in areas where no one expected women to come. The fallout probably won’t really be known for weeks or months. To follow the conversation on Twitter, keep an eye on the hashtags #women2drive, #oct26driving, and #daretodrive.

I am inspired by what I see and read. It takes one kind of courage to fight in a well-matched contest. It takes another to fight an adversary much bigger than you are, based on reason and principle. And it takes still another to fight one that is not only bigger than you, but to step outside the protection of reason and play on the adversary’s field, by the adversary’s shifting rules, with the adversary’s tools, with the adversary providing the oversight and declaring the right to end the conflict when and how it decides. The vision of freedom is a sustaining one. In the words of artist Khawla Al Marri, “One day it will rain cars and I’ll have my own key.”

One day it will rain cars and I'll have my own key

“One day it will rain cars and I’ll have my own key” ~Khawla Al Marri

And that is dream for us all.

2 thoughts on “An Ignition Key to the Kingdom

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