WASHINGTON – Kudos to the brave Saudi Arabian women for their protest against the ban on their driving. The prohibition was decreed by their ultra-conservative Wahhabi clerics, and is being enforced by the Saudi royal family. As I’ve learned from several trips to the kingdom, Saudi women have long been chafing under the worst kind of social and official suppression anywhere in the world.
Today a group of Saudi women has hit the roads behind the wheels of their cars, in brazen defiance of the misogynist law. Earlier, they collected some 1,700 signatures on a petition demanding the abolition of the driving ban.
I heard a pundit on an American radio talk show saying the women’s driving issue had confronted the Saudi monarchy with “the delicate task of balancing the women’s demand against Islamic law.” Indeed many non-Muslims and some Muslims think Islam forbids women to drive. I’ve long been waiting to hear an Islamic scholar tell me where in the Quran women are instructed not to drive automobiles.
Early Arab Muslim women, including the wives of the Prophet Muhammad and his associates, were much freer than their 21st century Saudi Arabian daughters. In fact the Prophet’s wife Ayesha rode a camel (when there were no automobiles anywhere in the world) to command her troops in a historic battle – the Battle of the Camels – against Caliph Ali. She also used to address public gatherings.
The caging of women is part of the Arab tribal – not Islamic – tradition. It acquired “Islamic” legitimacy in the 18th century when the obscurantist, but widely popular, Arab Islamic scholar Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab sanctioned this traditional Arab prohibition against women’s outdoor activities. Abdul Wahhab endorsed many other Arab misogynist tribal mores. The founder of the Saudi state and monarchy, Muhammad Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, needed Abdul Wahhab’s blessings to build his support base and military campaigns to set up his kingdom. He made the Wahhabi creed the bedrock of the Saudi legal system.
The Wahhabi legal code, besides suppressing women’s rights, prohibits public protests against the ruling dynasty. It imposes inhuman punishment for often-minor infraction of other draconian Saudi laws. Thus the Wahhabi (or Salafi) code has come in handy for the monarchy to suppress dissent and rule the kingdom with an iron hand.
Most citizens of the kingdom don’t dare to make critical comments to strangers about the tyranny and massive corruption of the rulers and other members of the House of Saud. Typical was the reaction of a roomful of academics when, during a 1995 trip, I asked them about the conduct of the royals abroad.
About a dozen professors of the King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah had been invited by one of their colleagues (whom I had known before) to meet me over tea. Responding to my inquiries, some of them made oblique remarks against some government policies. One of them even blamed the “advisers” of then King Fahd for the kingdom’s participation in the U.S.-led war against the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. He made a reference to Bob Woodward’s book The Commanders to make a point. I had never heard any Saudi citizen inside Saudi Arabia voice dissent against the monarchy. Encouraged by what I thought their assertion of a measure of academic independence, I asked if they had read in that Woodward book a reference to then crown prince Fahd’s orgies. The writer had cited CIA documents to narrate Fahd’s daylong rendezvous with teenage American girls in his royal aircraft.
Pin-drop silence descended in the room.
Later when I asked their views about instances of massive corruption in the House of Saud, my host changed the subject. Others began quizzing me about the “hypocritical” U.S. policy toward Israel and Palestinians, treatment of Muslim minorities in the West, and so forth. I realized “academic freedom” could go only so far in Saudi Arabia. Since then I found out, during three research trips, that Arab intelligentsia in Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt and in the United Arab Emirates under the Al Nahyan monarchy were just as tight-lipped about the repression of their tyrannical regimes.
But of all Muslim societies in the world, Saudi Arabia has been the most misogynist. You meet a woman at a bank waiting space in Jeddah. She’s covered up from head to ankles, except her eyes, hands and feet. You don’t know who she is or what she looks like but can see her complexion and guess her age from a glance at her feet and hands. When she learns that you’re an America researcher, she’s shows an interest in talking with you.
Outside the bank she answers your questions, getting off her chest the long-suppressed anguish against regime oppression, social strictures on women, family violence, and so forth. Her narrative of Saudi misogyny and other social prejudices is the most candid and illuminating you get in Saudi Arabia. Her candor comes from her anonymity. Unlike the academics or businessmen you interviewed, you can’t see her or know her identity. You don’t ask her identity if you want her uninhibited views, and she won’t disclose it even if asked.
More recent reports from Saudi Arabia suggest that things are changing dramatically there since the onset of the Arab Spring. Saudi women – and men – are showing unprecedented yearning for freedom. Women’s public challenge today to the government’s – and the religious establishment’s – long-standing driving ban shows that many women in the kingdom no longer require anonymity to vent their rage against male suppression.
Mustafa Malik is the host of the blog ‘What Freedom’ and an international affairs columnist in Washington.