Don’t Be Fooled by Saudi Arabia’s Plan to Let Women Drive

From New York Magazine, September 30, 2017, by Jonah Shepp.

Saudi activist Manal al-Sharif drives her car in Dubai on October 22, 2013.Photo: MARWAN NAAMANI/AFP/Getty Images.

When Saudi Arabia announced on Tuesday that women there would finally be allowed to drive cars starting next June, many women celebrated it as a small but significant victory. The announcement represented the culmination of a nearly 30-year-long campaign by activists to overturn perhaps the most comically absurd of the arch-conservative kingdom’s many restrictions on women’s rights.

Yet at the same time, it also underscored the arbitrary, autocratic, and patriarchal way in which Saudi Arabia is governed. As recently as 2015, women were being arrested, charged with terrorism, and thrown in jail for months for openly defying the ban on driving. Manal al-Sharif, the most famous activist driver, was arrested and jailed for nine days, thrown out of her job, and forced to give up custody of her 6-year-old son for driving in 2011. Chatter and rumors about overturning the ban have percolated for a few years, but by all accounts, Tuesday’s decision took the country by surprise.

What changed between then and now? Nothing, except the minds of two men: 81-year old King Salman, who took the throne in 2015 and reportedly suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, and his 32-year-old son and heir Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), who appears to be basically running the country on his father’s behalf. MBS has taken a number of small steps toward making Saudi Arabia less cartoonishly oppressive in the past two years, taking some power away from the country’s religious police and allowing some popular music concerts and gender-mixed gatherings, alongside an ambitious economic program meant to make the country less petroleum-dependent.

His economic plans and modest loosening of the Saudi state’s infamous vise grip on public morals have earned the prince glowing profiles in the Western media, such as this one from CNN’s national-security analyst Peter Bergen, which reads like it was dictated directly by MBS’s press office and flatters him with such groaners as “there is a new Sharif in town.” Needless to say, MBS’s leading role in Saudi Arabia’s costly and destructive warmongering in Yemen, his defense of its mass executions of political prisoners, and his tendency to have anyone who disagrees with his policies arrested somehow don’t merit mentioning. Nor do such complications appear in this slightly less irresponsible column from April by the Washington Post’s David Ignatius.

MBS, we read in these blandishments, is a bold social and political reformer who’s smart and popular enough to drag his country “kicking and screaming into the 21st century,” as Ali Shihabi, executive director of the Arabia Foundation and a friend of the Saudi elite, put it to Bergen. Scratch beneath the surface of these lauded social reforms, however, and they look more like attempts to burnish the billionaire prince’s own image in the eyes of the world than genuine efforts to better the lives of his subjects.

Reactions to Tuesday’s announcement, for example, were decidedly mixed in Saudi Arabia, where many men have been fed a steady media diet of ultraconservative Wahhabi clerics telling them that women driving would make their wives infertile, turn them into sex maniacs or lesbians, and lead to the deterioration of Islamic values and Saudi society. One of the top trending Twitter hashtags in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday night read, in Arabic: “The women of my house won’t drive.” The hashtag “The people reject women driving” was tweeted 335,000 times, compared to just 33,700 for “The king is victorious for women driving,” the New York Times reported, citing Twitter.

Many Saudi women celebrated, for sure, but the decision was unlikely to make them forget the many rights they still don’t have. Left out of most of the jubilant international coverage of Tuesday’s decision is that the actual parameters of the change have not yet been determined; committee of labor and interior ministry officials will take a month to decide on the final regulations for women driving, which may not give them rights equal to men after all.

And just because women will be allowed to drive, that doesn’t mean they will have access to vehicles. It’s not as though every Saudi woman can go out and buy a car tomorrow: For most women, their finances are controlled by their male guardians, and the men will decide whether or not they get a car. That’s why the auto industry doesn’t expect the new policy to boost sales very much.

Beyond restricting their right to drive, Saudi women’s lives are still controlled by the patriarchal guardianship system in myriad ways: They are not allowed to obtain passports or IDs, and are thus unable to leave the country without their guardian’s permission. Nor are they allowed to get jobs, open bank accounts, open businesses, or decide whom to marry or whether to get divorced without the assent of a male relative. Their testimony is worth half that of a man’s in court, they receive only half as much inheritance as their brothers, and they are unable to obtain custody of their children after a divorce. Saudi women remain legally subordinated to men in nearly every respect, and a driver’s license won’t make them forget that.

The rest of the world, on the other hand, has reacted to MBS’s latest bold move with near-universal approval. Displaying the soft bigotry of low expectations, world leaders and media outlets have heaped praise on the Saudi government for catching up to the 20th century only 17 years into the 21st. So the prince gets to pad his reformist résumé with another dubious credential, then go back to conquering nepotistic worlds with his buddyJared Kushner and entertaining his fellow plutocrats on his $500 million yacht.

The women, though, know better: They’re aware that this wasn’t entirely about them, and know better than anyone how decidedly unliberated they remain. As professor and women’s rights activist Aziza Youssef put it: “This is a good step forward for women’s rights. It’s the first step in 1,000 miles to go.”

Saudi Arabia’s Revolution From the Top Has No Place for Critics

From Bloomberg, October 11, 2017, by Vivian Nereim and Glen Carey..

Few would describe Mohammed Al-Arefe as a defender of women’s rights. In one infamous video, the Saudi cleric explains exactly how a man should beat his wife.

But when the government decided to allow women to drive cars, up popped Al-Arefe on state TV to say what a good idea that was. “A modest woman will remain modest whether she drives or not,” he told the nation. Other religious leaders, once hostile to any departure from traditional ways, joined the chorus of approval.

The kingdom’s powerful preachers were getting with the program. A couple of weeks earlier, they’d seen what happens to those who don’t. More than a dozen prominent clerics, activists and businessmen were arrested and accused of “pushing an extremist agenda.”

nder Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, Saudi Arabia is seeking to reintroduce itself to the world — opening its economy to global business, and its society to practices once deemed un-Islamic. At the same time, the limited space for criticism and debate that once existed in this absolute monarchy is being stifled.

‘More Repressive’

The kingdom has become “more repressive than in the past,” said James Dorsey, a Middle East specialist at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University. “It’s a break with the era of King Abdullah, who often sought to forge consensus,” he said. “The Salmans do not tolerate any criticism whatsoever.”

Saudi factions used to compete for influence at the royal court. Conservatives carried much more weight, and were allowed sway over social policies and education; liberals were sometimes appeased with small steps toward reform. Inertia ruled.

Things began to change when King Salman succeeded his brother Abdullah in 2015. The transformation accelerated — and the circle of decision-making narrowed — with the rise of Salman’s son to a dominant position in the government.

Prince Mohammed envisions a “vibrant society,” with more women in the workforce and more entertainment options. His economic program is based on a radical shift from public to private sector, and diversification out of oil. He’s cited the disruptive innovators of Silicon Valley, like Facebook Inc.’s Mark Zuckerberg, as role models.

‘Under Attack’

It’s not all coercion. The crown prince has cozied up to many potential critics. He posed for a photo with Al-Arefe, the smiling preacher’s arm wrapped around him, and held a personal meeting with a once-oppositional cartoonist.

But ultimately, change on this scale can only come from the top down, some supporters say.

“You need a very firm hand to see this through without provoking chaos,” said Ali Shihabi, who’s close to the government and executive director of the Arabia Foundation in Washington. “The country is going through a generational succession, the government is undertaking a herculean effort to restructure the country amid low oil prices, and it’s under attack by Shiite and Sunni jihadis and Iran.”

A search for consensus would be futile, he said, because “the political spectrum between the conservatives and the liberals is so wide as to be impossible to reconcile.”

‘Kingdom of Fear’

Critics see it differently, even if they increasingly have to leave the country in order to say so.

“Saudi Arabia never was an open society, but it never was a kingdom of fear,” said Jamal Khashoggi, a senior journalist and former government adviser now living in self-imposed exile in the U.S. The wave of arrests is “part of the closing down of space for freedom of expression,” he said.

That’s also affecting liberals, often a term of abuse in the kingdom. On the night of the driving decision on September 26, authorities began calling prominent women’s rights advocates and warning them not to publicly celebrate — or face consequences, according to four people familiar with the matter. One of them speculated that the government didn’t want activists to get any credit for the decision, preferring to highlight the role of the leadership.

The government’s new Center for International Communications denied the claim, saying that “no one has been censored or warned about expressing their views.”

‘Manage the Narrative’

Shihabi said the government didn’t want activists provoking the conservative base, preferring the airwaves to be “dominated by voices from the religious establishment.”

“They need to manage the narrative,” he said.

After decades of unresponsive communications, the government has hired new public relations firms and appointed a U.S.-educated spokeswoman for its embassy in Washington. Its new media office in Riyadh is staffed by young and tech-savvy English speakers.

It all amounts to a “global public-relations coup,” said Tim Cooper, a London-based economist for BMI Research, a unit of Fitch Group. The driving announcement was a success on those terms, he said: “If Saudi Arabia wants to demonstrate that it’s open to foreign investment, these are the sort of things that continue to put it on the map.”

Outside Saudi borders, controlling the narrative is harder. Khashoggi aired his concerns in a Washington Post op-ed last month, declaring the kingdom had become “unbearable.”

‘Tough Judgement’

The crackdown continued last week when 22 people were arrested for “inciting public opinion” on social media. Some educated and previously outspoken Saudis are making plans to leave the country. During a recent conversation, one elite Saudi lowered his voice to say he’s looking for a way out. He said he loved the country and wanted its transformation plan to succeed, but was worried that only “yes-men” could thrive in the current climate.

Prince Mohammed’s bold departures on economic and social matters are matched by a newly assertive foreign policy. In Yemen and Qatar, concrete results have proved elusive. Still, patriotic fervor is running high. Images of Prince Mohammed are all over state media. Even orange-juice cartons in grocery stores are adorned with pictures that celebrate Saudi power: fighter jets, saluting soldiers, clenched fists.

People watch a projection depicting a portrait of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh. Photographer: AFP via Getty Images

The tougher policies at home and abroad are intertwined in the Twitter hashtag “black list,” launched by royal court adviser Saud Al Qahtani in August. He urged Saudis to name and shame people who took Qatar’s side in the Gulf dispute. There’ll be “tough judgment and pursuit” for every “mercenary” who gets blacklisted, he wrote.

The hashtag has taken on a life of its own. Recent targets include a famous comedian who makes satirical YouTube videos, and a female activist arrested years ago for driving. Khashoggi has also been attacked online, labeled a traitor and mercenary.

“The media and the electronic army are being encouraged to go after those people,” he said. “It’s very Orwellian.”

Why Saudi Arabia Lifted Its Ban on Women Drivers

From New Republic, October 11, 2017, by Rafia Zakaria.

Breaking the law made Manal Al-Sharif a women’s rights advocate, she explains in her memoir “Daring to Drive.”

I learned to drive on the streets of Karachi. My instructor, per my father’s insistence, was a woman. Every day she showed up in the special instructor car fitted with a brake and a clutch (most cars in Pakistan had standard transmission) on her side. She was not very much older than me but she was, I soon learned, unafraid to ply the streets of the city with smarts and gumption I did not have. Once, when the car got stuck in standing water after a Karachi rainstorm, she told me to open the driver’s side door and look outside. If the water level was a couple of inches below the door, it was okay to drive. It was, and I drove.

Reading Manal Al-Sharif’s memoir Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening took me back to those days and reminded me of how contagious courage can be. In 2011, Al-Sharif got behind the wheel of her brother’s car and dared to drive on a Saudi street. She was not the first to protest the Kingdom’s driving ban: Forty-seven women were arrested for doing the same in 1990. But unlike her forerunners, Al-Sharif recorded it all and uploaded it to YouTube. Within hours, a horde of Saudi secret police were deployed to her apartment. There they stayed, carting her off in the early hours of the next morning. Al-Rashid would spend the next nine days inside a Saudi women’s prison, a fate usually reserved for the many migrant women who serve Saudis rather than for Saudis themselves. Al-Sharif would emerge from the ordeal a transformed woman, determined to coax the freedom to drive from the oppressive Saudi state.

Last Tuesday, she won. In a Royal decree issued by the King, the ban on driving was lifted; Saudi women would be able to apply for a driver’s license and drive without the presence of male guardians in the car. The qualms of clerics, who had tried for decades to deny women the freedom to drive, had been set aside by the only man who could: the King himself. In the op-ed she wrote following the King’s decree, Al-Sharif, who now lives in Brazil, declared that she could not wait to drive in Saudi Arabia.

Al-Sharif did not set out to be a rebel. As she confesses, the most rebellious thing she did in her youth was to get a job. But even that was a big step. No other woman in her family had ever done so, and her parents, unsure how to handle it, kept the fact a secret from other family members. It is a telling omission, one that reveals just how unusual Al-Sharif’s family was. Her father was a taxi-driver, who ferried pilgrims between the holy sites of Mecca, where the family lived in an apartment on the edge of a slum. The smell of sewage wafted in the air and relatives mostly stayed away. It was not simply because of their poverty; not only was her father a less than abundant provider, he had a foreign wife. Al-Sharif’s mother was Libyan, a fact that neither she nor her children were ever permitted to forget—cousins referred to her disparagingly (and inaccurately) as “the Egyptian.” This experience, at the margins of belonging, gave her reason to be less than satisfied with the status quo. As she notes frequently in interviews, “not all of us live luxurious lives… spoiled like queens.” In her case, this was definitely true.

But while being an outsider may have left Al-Sharif sensitive to the impact of the Kingdom’s subjugation of Saudi women, she gives little thought to the foreign women who suffer under the same system. When Al-Sharif is packed away to prison, the women inside scream, “You’re Saudi? You’re Saudi?” These women are largely maids and other domestics, who’ve been swept from their homes—in Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Indonesia, Somalia, and India—by global inequality to work in the homes of wealthy Saudis. They are shocked to see a Saudi woman there. Only seven of the 168 women in the prison are Saudi, and of those, four were held in “temporary detention,” not serving out a sentence. Al-Sharif doesn’t offer a comment on this statistic, and during her agonizing nine days, consorted mostly with another Saudi woman.

It is a small quibble but an important one. The designation “Saudi” is, in the Kingdom, a nativist one, available generally only to those whose fathers and grandfathers have been Saudi “citizens.” Obviously this means that the Kingdom’s many migrant workers, like the women Al-Sharif encounters in prison, have no citizenship and hence, few rights. Several have been executed in recent years, some of them on mere accusations of having killed a child in their charge, without trials or investigations or lawyers.


Al-Sharif makes one of her most astute observations when she constructs a genealogy of the Kingdom’s crackdown on women’s rights. She traces the country’s stringent laws to the siege of Mecca in 1979, when a group of rebels took over the Grand Mosque just before the Grand Mufti was about lead a congregation of 50,000 pilgrims in prayer. The rebels, many of whom came from the clerical establishment, were led by Juhayman al-Otaybi, who alleged that the ruling family had strayed too far from Islamic teachings. A bloody siege followed, and when the mosque was stormed over 250 people were already dead, with over 500 injured. To get the clerics back on their side, the Saudi Royal family agreed to implement an even more austere Islam and the Salafist ideology that the Kingdom would impose on their own and export far and wide. Women bore the brunt of this. Their images were censored from every publication and public space. Baton-wielding religious police on patrol became a familiar sight. And of course women were completely banned from driving cars.

If, as Al-Sharif alleges, the elimination of women from the public sphere was the result of strategic imperatives—an attempt to stanch the Pan-Arabism that was spreading across the Middle East, by getting the country’s powerful clerics on side—one cannot help but wonder if recent freedoms are borne of similar considerations. The drive toward self-expression and a desire for democracy has plunged so many neighbors into wars, a fate the monarchy has every reason to want to avoid by handing out small freedoms. In another attempt to appease the populace and institute a kind of protectionism, the Saudi Vision 2030 plan seeks to replace all non-Saudis from government jobs by 2020 and deport thousands of illegal workers. In the new expatriate and foreign worker-free Saudi Arabia, women will need to work—and to drive. Just one day after the announcement of the repeal of the driving ban, a woman was appointed Deputy Mayor of Khobar, the same city where Al-Sharif was detained before being carted off to prison.

Amid the childhood stories and memories Al-Sharif recounts in the early pages of Daring to Drive is an account of her favorite fable. It is the story of a young prince under the tutelage of his older teacher. One day the teacher, suddenly and unexpectedly, strikes the prince. He is shocked, and silently vows to avenge this wrong when he is king. When the day finally arrives, he asks the teacher why he had slapped him. The teacher replies that he did it because he wished the Prince to have the experience of injustice when he was young, so he would understand how his subjects felt when he became king.

There can be little doubt that Al-Sharif’s early experience of exclusion made her a valiant activist. But a feminist awakening requires revolt not only against the wrongs done to oneself or to one’s own kind, but also to those whose humanity is scarcely recognized within the Saudia Arabia and the wider global economy. When Manal Al-Sharif, finally, victoriously drives her car on Saudi soil for the very first time, perhaps she will consider driving to the prison where she was taken, where hundreds of women remain, without any hope of freedom.

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