By Asna Ali
October 04, 2013
An online petition launched to persuade Saudi women to drive on October 26 in defiance of the ban that prohibits them from this activity has drawn worldwide attention and thousands of signatures. It has also drawn the attention of Sheikh Saleh al-Lohaidan, a psychological consultant, who has some very eccentric views about driving and its apparently harmful effects on the female body.
His comments, that driving damages the ovaries and causes the pelvis to (inexplicably) ‘roll up’, have resulted in the quizzical reactions and mockery that typically follow when clerics in their quest to lead their wayward flock to a more righteous path, overstep the bounds of reality.
Though Sheikh Al-Lohaidan’s opinion has been waved aside as a joke, the belief underlying it cannot be dismissed so easily. There is no law in Saudi Arabia banning women from driving but by not issuing licences to women, imposing fines and terminating the employment of those who do drive, the status quo has been successfully maintained. This petition is only the most recent in a long line of protests against the ban. Notwithstanding a reportedly more relaxed attitude towards female drivers, it may be a long time before women drivers become a common sight in Saudi Arabia.
This is due to deeply rooted patriarchal values which uphold sharply defined gender roles. Men are the traditional guardians while women have to defer to their authority no matter what their age or social standing. They are typically handed from one male custodian to the next (fathers to husbands) and are never given the right to make truly independent decisions that are not influenced by the men in their lives.
These principles are entrenched in conservative societies the world over, including Saudi Arabia, and are behind many of the unwritten rules that individuals must follow in order for their behaviour to be considered socially acceptable.
However, gender roles are slowly becoming blurred due to other social forces. Even in highly conservative societies like Saudi Arabia women are, whether by choice or necessity, receiving higher education and becoming part of the workforce in greater numbers than ever before. It is no longer feasible for them to sit around and wait until a male family member is free to ferry them around town. They are forced to hire drivers at very high wages. This kills the inherent purpose of the ban since travelling with a man who is not a blood relative is no more tolerable than travelling alone.
This is just one example of two value systems running parallel to each other and colliding in a multitude of ways. It is not possible to maintain traditional gender roles with the more modern approach of giving women the right to education and allowing them to work outside the home.
This mixed bag of values has produced odd results such as Saudi Arabia’s decision to not issue driving licenses to women even while accepting the economic and social realities that have given rise to this need in the first place.
This is similar to the attitude that prompts families looking for daughters-in-law to require that any potential candidate must be highly educated even as in the next breath they declare that she must not be a working woman.
So long as people living in conservative societies like ours and Saudi Arabia’s do not resolve their cognitive dissonance over adopting a new set of values, women will find themselves caught in this strange reality of being infantilised and required to defer to their male guardians while receiving the education, exposure and opportunities that urge them to break free.
Asna Ali is a business studies graduate from southern Punjab.