Okay, kids. This is a test. I want you to think REALLY hard. When was the last time you heard any straight-faced conversation that touched on the term “women drivers”? The straight-faced part is important. Plenty of dudes will say it as a joke, grin, and wait for a nearby woman to swat him. Kinda like the way a 10-year-old teases girls so they’ll pay attention to him. No, I mean serious, as in “Well, I believe that women drivers…” When was it?
- Twenty years ago
- Twenty five years ago
- Unsure, but I think my grandpa said it
- This week
If (d) is your answer, one of only two things is true about you: You either work in the actuarial department of an auto insurance company, or you live in Saudi Arabia. You can’t do both, see, because women aren’t allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia and therefore nobody needs to run claim numbers to determine the appropriate rate for insurance on a given car in the hands of a given driver of a given gender. It’s a given.
It’s amazing how “givens” take hold. Driving is not actually illegal in Saudi Arabia. There’s no municipal code, judicial ruling, or federal law. No, it’s forbidden, which is pretty much the same thing as a given. The same way it’s a given among grandmothers that if you go out in the cold you’ll get a cold. Don’t argue about virus transmission. Just put on your scarf if you want any peace.
Givens have particular power in a country where the education is poor. (According to this report, 70% of Saudi parents would wish for their children to be enrolled in international schools rather than the Saudi public or private schools.) The chief complaint is that education is based on rote learning and memorization and doesn’t prepare adults to think critically or solve problems. As I observe what part of the national conversation is available to me in English, uh…yup. And let’s keep in mind, the ones reading and commenting on English language news stories are the better educated ones.
It is unsurprising that an education that rewards repeating what you’ve been told would produce adults who are inclined to believe what they’re told, and who lack the tools to see or challenge gaps in the logic. The training and culture set people up to judge ideas based on the perceived authority of the speaker and how adamantly the idea is stated. Thus the arguments against women driving can puzzle those who hear them out of that context. The stuff that matters to Saudis is invisible to outsiders, who measure the ideas against logic alone and find them baffling.
Consider, for example, a conversation that erupted in a Facebook group. The discussion followed a posting of a news story reporting that 87.2% of Saudi families have drivers. At some point, a man jumped into the conversation to say this:
there are many Saudi Girls and womens want to driver by herself … thats a bad wish for them and for others …
A westerner, unsurprisingly, responded by asking why it was bad for a woman to drive. She highlighted the way it would unburden the husbands who come home in the evening and have to take the family out for errands that couldn’t be done during the day. The response:
what i am saying … ??? i said that … if you have a professional drivers ,… you are saving you time your lifs and many more things … you are not able drive on long rout so just drivers are able to do this … and if womens driver in saudia … no one save on roads… Natural Facts
Bam! THERE’S your money shot! The original question not answered, and a retreat behind “natural facts.” I believe those might also be called “givens.” I chimed in immediately to ask for an explanation. How do professional drivers save time? How do they save lives? Why are only they able to undertake long drives? I’ve long suspected that a lot of the strange ideas tossed around and described as “facts” are merely things people have heard and never challenged. Things they don’t know how to challenge. Things, if challenged themselves, they cannot defend.
Sure enough, he drifted into an argument with others about the role of women in Islam. I kept interrupting and asking him to explain the natural facts because I really just wanted to understand. Eventually Brittany, another group member, said
he is saying women are incompetent compared to men. If we get on the road we will cause accidents because we can’t handle the cars. My husband says it all the time. He also says women are more vengeful and get more upset when they are cut off etc. It is disturbing really.
Oh, gosh. And…I know. But I wanted to extract a real answer from an actual human who actually thought this way, just to see what it was. So I asked again. I was pretty sure he was just going to ignore me, but THEN I got this gem:
check Brittany’s cmnt … women cant handle cars … womens are upset from too much things … medical says men are mentally power full then womens … womens are nervous more then men … check youtube and google … you will find you answer …
Ta-da! Don’t you love it when your theory proves out? Somebody this guy already liked told him something he already believed, showed some YouTube videos that went along with it, said, “When I Googled ‘women are nervous,’ do you know what I found?” and presto! We have a natural fact. Clearly, he’s never used Google or YouTube to look into any of this stuff on his own, or he’d understand the distinct possibility that I might end up with different search results than what he believes are the only ones.
And who can forget this noble fellow (left) who, a year ago, claimed that driving “automatically affects ovaries and rolls up the pelvis.” He cited “functional medicine” as the author of this information. In other words, he heard it from somebody he wants to believe, which makes it a natural fact. A given.
I have a friend who engaged coworkers in a conversation about women driving at about that same time. One coworker thought it would be fine, the other said they shouldn’t. My friend asked why not. He’s enough of an Islamic scholar himself that the coworker couldn’t get away with claiming Mohammed had taught any such thing, so he fumbled for a minute and then said that there would be adultery if women drove. And who, pray, would women be having affairs with because of driving that they don’t already have access to now? He had no ready answer, and eventually said, “Gas station attendants.”
If you’re unfamiliar with gas stations in Saudi Arabia, let me clarify that they’re HORRIFYING. Whenever women DO get the right to drive, I can guarantee they’ll still leave the fill-ups to men whenever possible. My friend went on to ask why women would be more likely to have an affair with the body-odored guy they might talk to through a few inches of rolled-down window than they are with the male driver they’re already shut in a car with right now. Answer = the null set. I think there may have been an “Is that my phone?” interruption.
I have seen the “they’ll have affairs” argument about why women shouldn’t drive numerous times. This is clearly something that’s gets said, believed, and repeated, on and on, over and over, without anyone stopping to ask why or how.
Americans, by contrast, appear prone to skepticism. Suspicious of the personal motives of those who speak to us, we have rigorous laws about truth in advertising. We have consumer agencies to review whether products are what they claim to be. We have fact-checking websites that review political advertising, then news agencies that review them. We have contracts and lawyers and lawyers for the lawyers to be sure people do what they say they will.
Yet for all the show, in America there is still, as P.T. Barnum used to say, a sucker born every minute. Americans fall for ridiculous investment scams. We buy useless cures for diseases we don’t have. We, too, can insulate ourselves among people we agree with, affirm each other in saying the same things, and not acknowledge the holes in our own logic. And we’re getting worse.
So let’s not kid ourselves. Man everywhere is prone to foolishness. But is that always bad? Religion, family love, artistic and scientific accomplishment all require a certain level of foolishness in the name of hope. But the things and people that call upon that kind of foolishness aren’t afraid for you to dig on your own for whatever facts the world around you may reveal, whether or not they actually prove anything. A spouse who loves you really is faithful, but can you also trust in that person’s unseen desire to be faithful? Your odds of being the one to eliminate childhood cancer really are quite slim; will you persist anyway? God lets you see how awful people can be; will you trust in God’s love for them and treat them as brothers and sisters anyway?
No, I think I should judge who’s up to no good not by foolishness itself, but by the call to be foolish no longer in the name of hope, but in those qualities that dwell on the dark side of humanity, those demons of greed and fear and slothfulness and pride. A bad call to foolishness is easy to spot when I’m told to be afraid of what might be if I don’t just keep my eyes on the salesman, if I don’t just believe and buy. The powdered rhinoceros horn, the unconventional real estate investment, the necessity of propping up institutions that preserve privilege and power. If I’m being discouraged from looking for facts on my own, that’s because they don’t hold up. At that point, if I choose to ignore reality, I’m left with nowhere to stand but behind the “natural facts.” And that’s the most foolish place to be of all.
For more, my post from the Women to Drive protest of one year ago today is “An Ignition Key to the Kingdom.” My report on what an ordinary day can be like without without freedom of movement is “Doing the Saudi Shuffle.” For an eloquent plea for change (which accompanied the Facebook conversation cited earlier), see “The Queens of Saudi Arabia Need to Drive” on the Blue Abaya blog. To keep up on the issue, Follow #Oct26Driving, #IWillDriveMyself, #Women2Drive, and anything else you can find out there.