Women Drivers

by Kieran Healy on June 2, 2005

The suggestion that women in Saudi Arabia might, conceivably, be allowed to drive cars provokes squeals of outrage:

Consultative Council member Mohammad al-Zulfa’s proposal has unleashed a storm in this conservative country where the subject of women drivers remains taboo. Al-Zulfa’s cell phone now constantly rings with furious Saudis accusing him of encouraging women to commit the double sins of discarding their veils and mixing with men. … [Opponents], who believe women should be shielded from strange men, say driving will allow a woman to leave home whenever she pleases and go wherever she wishes. Some say it will present her with opportunities to violate Islamic law, such as exposing her eyes while driving or interacting with strange men, like police officers or mechanics.

“Driving by women leads to evil,” Munir al-Shahrani wrote in a letter to the editor of the Al-Watan daily. “Can you imagine what it will be like if her car broke down? She would have to seek help from men.” …

It is the same argument used to restrict other freedoms. Without written permission from a male guardian, women may not travel, get an education or work. Regardless of permission, they are not allowed to mix with men in public or leave home without wearing black cloaks, called abayas.

From the guy’s point of view, the great thing about a nakedly patriarchal arrangement like this is that, absent a shift in the whole social order, women driving alone really _would_ be in serious danger. Many men who saw them would likely conclude that they were out cruising for sex, and either beat them up or rape them — and, naturally, blame the women themselves for provoking either outcome. People being the way they are, there will also be women on hand to applaud this sort of thing, thereby helping to justify it. For instance, Wajiha al-Huweidar said Saudi women did not want “the intellectuals to shine and their names to glitter at our expense. We will not permit anyone and we have not appointed anyone to speak on our behalf.” Good for you, sister! You tell those degenerate liberal intellectuals and their disgusting ideas about driving. We need some feminists in Saudi to publish a book on this topic called Our Hardbodies, Ourselves.

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Indigo Jo Blogs
06.04.05 at 4:19 am



Keith M Ellis 06.02.05 at 1:27 pm

God, that’s so depressing.


jet 06.02.05 at 1:42 pm

Who cares if millions are oppressed, beaten daily, or burned alive, at least we have cheap oil!


b 06.02.05 at 2:18 pm

In the US, similar fears about women and cars existed in the early 20th century. Obviously not quite as extreme, but fathers went nuts worrying that cars provided their daughters with a place outside their supervision where they could *gasp* have sex before marriage. During the ’20s, the KKK made a point of looking for young couples in backseats along the sides of roads, extending their punishment even to white men found despoiling the honor of innocent young women.
The current concern with internet chat rooms, though of a slightly different flavor (a larger concern with child molesters, to be specific), I think comes from the same general fear of a loss of control.


neil 06.02.05 at 2:24 pm


Kieran Healy 06.02.05 at 2:26 pm

whoops, that link was in the original post — it got lost in the formatting. fixed now.


bi 06.02.05 at 3:12 pm

What women need, therefore, is the right to bare arms. Wait, I mean _bear_ arms.


ogmb 06.02.05 at 3:44 pm

We choose our allies wisely…


brendan 06.02.05 at 4:24 pm

What’s the matter with you people? Don’t you know that these people are our allies in the war on terror? Haven’t you seen Bush hand in hand with Prince Abdullah? And that if you oppose Saudi anti-semitism you are……..er…….an anti-semite or…..you know……something…….oh God sometimes it’s so complicated being a Bushie!!!


urizon 06.02.05 at 4:48 pm

“Driving by women leads to evil,” Munir al-Shahrani wrote in a letter to the editor of the Al-Watan daily.

If you dropped the words “by women” from the above sentence, you have the world’s present-day problems in a nutshell — everything from road rage to holy wars.

My simplistic, yet (hopefully) amusing observation.


Fergal 06.02.05 at 5:17 pm


You just haven’t been listening. Anti-semitism isn’t the problem, it’s islamophobia. Got it? It’s ok to talk about Saudi chauvinism (anti-semitism is a bit trickier) because the Saudis are Bush’s pals. Just don’t mention Qaradawi or his ilk. They’re “our” Islamists.


Jim Harrison 06.02.05 at 6:57 pm

Those of us who would like to see change in Saudi Arabia should take careful note of the driving license story. When the lid comes off a repressed society, what often surfaces first and most fiercely are the ancient prejudices of the people. When the British proles finally blew off steam at the end of the highly reactionary 18th Century, they didn’t attack the rich or the establishment. They attacked the long-mistreated English Papists in riots as horrendous as anything that was going on in Paris in the same era.

A revolution in Saudi Arabia would most likely take the form of religious fascism. By the same token, whatever revolutionary potential exists in the U.S. is on the right.


Carlos 06.02.05 at 7:01 pm

I like Bi’s suggestion. Are Saudi women allowed to carry guns? And if not, why not, if it’s to protect their honor?

Where is John Lott when you really need him? 98% of honor violations could be prevented by a simple brandishing!


Tracy W 06.02.05 at 8:15 pm

The advantage a woman driving alone would have is that she’s in a car, and can lock the doors and drive away from or run over anyone trying to attack her. As long as she doesn’t get out of the car, this negates men’s greater average strength and arm length.

Thus would-be assaulters and rapists would have to be in a car they wouldn’t mind risking severely damaging in the process of putting the woman driver’s car out of commission. Or would have to shoot at the car, which due to the risk to other people on the street I think even the most reactionary police and society would take exception to.


derrida derider 06.02.05 at 8:33 pm

“Some say it will present her with opportunities to violate Islamic law, such as exposing her eyes while driving …”

But just because people have an opportunity to break a law doesn’t mean they will. Every day I see drivers – both male and female – who, in obedience to this Islamic law, don’t expose their eyes while driving.


Brendan 06.03.05 at 3:47 am

Please spare me your wild generalisations. Qaradawi is a fool (or worse). But people in charge of states are always of more consequence than people who aren’t. Qaradawi, to repeat, is a fool. But he’s not actually in charge of anything. It’s not him, personally, who pays the bills of the torturers, the killers, the anti-semites. Nor is it him who is indirectly linked with Al-Qaeda (as forces high up in the Saudi Government certainly are).

In any case, Qaradawi is not my problem because I am not responsible for him. My taxes are not used to subsidise quasi-legal arms deals with his (non-existent) government, as happens with the Saudis, nor, when he tortures British citizens (which he hasn’t done, to the best of my knowledge) does Tony Blair, hemm and haww and do nothing (as happened when the Saudis kidnapped and tortured innocent British citizens).

Words are nothing, deeds are everything.


abb1 06.03.05 at 5:36 am

Saudi women are not allowed to drive alone? What a tragedy, abomination of nature.

Big deal.


jet 06.03.05 at 7:04 am

Something I’ve wondered about is that over the next few decades, perhaps the women’s right to vote in Iraq with have strong reprecussions in surrounding states. Perhaps this is merely the beginning of the changes to come.


abb1 06.03.05 at 7:16 am

Iraq has absolutely nothing to do with it. Women don’t get the right to vote until and unless most women start demanding it.

In Swiss canton Appenzell women didn’t have the right to vote until 1990, surrounding states didn’t help.


nofundy 06.03.05 at 7:36 am

Sounds like Saudi Arabia has their own Phyllis Schalafy. How dare women think they might be real people!!


jet 06.03.05 at 7:56 am

Not only will Saudi be exposed to a functioning democracy where women are not cattle, but the louder women’s voice in Saudi become, the more the world will respond and demand internal change. And the world could hobble along without Saudi oil, Saudi could not hobble along without the world’s money. Like much of the middle-east, their ability to feed their people is dependent on the Western economies’ desire for oil.

I’m just surprised no relativist have popped up to let us know that female mutilation, murder, and abuse is just part of Saudi culture and we have no right to judge them as right or wrong. Well, to be fair, lately the multiculturalist have stopped telling the world they have no right to judge each other and just focused on judging the US.


abb1 06.03.05 at 11:23 am

Big deal, Jet. Any woman born in Saudi Arabia is automatically better off then probably 95% of all women on the planet. I wish I could get all excited about them not being able to drive their Jaguars alone, but sorry, I can’t.

I am not aware of the Saudis practicing female mutilation, but they probably do routinely practice male genital mutilation, just like the Americans and others. Go to your local hospital and protest that atrocity.

And what murder and abuse are you talking about?


donna 06.03.05 at 12:10 pm

Saudi women are essentially treated as prisoners in their own society, abb1. Suggest you lock yourself in your home for a few weeks and not be allowed to leave, and see if you still think it’s no big deal.


abb1 06.03.05 at 12:20 pm

It’s good to have a home, Donna. A half of the world’s population live on less than $2/day. I suspect many of them would kill to be able to drive with their male relatives.


jet 06.03.05 at 3:09 pm

Ah yes, abb1 one. That old quasi-socialist for which all this strife and debate over how to improve the world is just too messy and difficult. If only we were all ruled by a benign dictator/monarchy, eh? Maybe we’d make your our king? Then you could stop all this needless talk about women’s rights in Saudi until you had resolved the poverty of the world. And perhaps since we can’t talk about women’s rights anymore, you could enlighten us to what we should be debating; but since you are the king, what use is debate? I guess in our spare time, if you let us have any, we could just bask in your glory. One could only dream.


Robin Green 06.03.05 at 4:50 pm

abb1 – Do you value your freedom so little, or do you just totally take it for granted?


bi 06.04.05 at 12:05 am

The irony is that the Saudi Arabian government isn’t being propped up by one of those Elitist(tm) Moral(tm) Relativists(tm), it’s being propped up by George “Let Us Bring Freedom And Democracy To The World!” Bush. So when’s Bush going to invade Saudi Arabia? When’s jet going to urge Bush to do so?


Publius 06.04.05 at 3:16 am

I want to see that story in the press, accompanied by the picture of Shrub holding hands on a romantic walk with a Saudi Prince last week.


abb1 06.04.05 at 3:20 am

Uh-oh. Apparently some (or many?) of the terribly oppressed Saudi women (can’t even drive alone, poor things) practice slavery.

The report said the Saudis, for example, lack laws criminalizing most trafficking offenses, and there is little evidence of whether employers are ever prosecuted. Many of the foreign laborers in Saudi Arabia work as domestic servants, and they are not covered by Saudi labor laws.

This whole thing reminds me of tribulations of the Western celebrities, you know, poor things can’t go anywhere – paparazzi are following them and harassing them all the time. They have no freedom.


Yusuf Smith 06.04.05 at 4:13 am

There have been several posts on this at a Saudi blog, recently: [1], [2], [3]


abb1 06.04.05 at 6:20 am

Thanks, Yusuf. Your links really do put this thing in perspective.

…While I’m nice to my driver, he is an employee and its an attitude I have to maintain so he doesn’t become to ‘comfortable’ with me. I want to maintain distance not only with me but the rest of my family as well. But even with this distance I feel like I’m dealing with a second husband that I have to explain myself to or debate with. I correct him when he goes over the line and I don’t think he realizes what he does is not appropriate, and I can only imagine the drivers who live on the property of families becoming even more familiar.

Pain in the ass, those damn chauffeurs.


moni 06.04.05 at 9:53 am

abb1, come on, give it a rest…

Besides, that’s the account of an American woman who moved to Saudi, and considers perverts men who chat her up in the supermarket, has her husband beat them and then calls the police on them. Of course you can’t help by sympathise with the men there.

I doubt everyone is in that situation even in Saudi Arabia.

If you don’t mind a serious, pedantic point, the rules for women, and ‘sanctions’ – official or DIY – for transgressing them, are the same as in Pakistani rural villages where they probably don’t see many Jaguars and where you won’t likely find women who freely embraced the local lifestyle, either.

And I’m not very fond of the use of women’s rights issues in Arab or Islamic countries as a prop for ideological ends that have little to do with real concerns for human or civil rights, but those rights are not predicated on a person’s wealth, and it’s entirely possible to be appalled at different kinds of inequalities at the same time – wether it’s the legal status of women, the economic differences within or between countries, or the treatment of domestic labourers (many of which, guess what, are women, too…).


abb1 06.04.05 at 10:48 am

Sure, sure. Just wanted to provide some perspective on the burning issue of Saudi women’s right to drive and shop, that’s all.


moni 06.04.05 at 1:25 pm

abb1, I don’t think you could have made your point any clearer. Or more entertaining. Just wanted to boringly point out that there is a serious issue beneath it, tempting as it may be to overlook it.

(Actually, you could have quoted an even more charming bit from that blog, the involuntary irony in the description of the second driver:

He came from a more wealthy family that fell on hard times so his father paid a large amount of money to get him a sponsor here so he could get a job. You can tell he was privileged because he was so lazy and thought everything would be handed to him.)


Kalkin 06.05.05 at 2:45 am

What’s with people attacking the woman quoted at the end of the article? She doesn’t sound like a Schlafly type, but like a feminist who’s attacking this sponsor’s opportunism (note that he’s not exactly defending equality).

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