Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Should Saudi Women Drive?

Sixty academics, journalists and writers, half of them women, gathered in Saudi Arabia last weekend to discuss women's rights, roles and education. Among the topics was the question whether women could be given the right to drive cars again and whether they could serve on the Saudi king's governing bodies. The meeting received publicity within Saudi Arabia:

According to the Christian Science Monitor, women's issues (such as the high unemployment rate for women and the current divorce laws favor men) were major themes that were debated in several Saudi television programs, newspapers, and radio shows leading up to the three-day conference. The Saudi television anchor and consultant for the Human Rights Commission, Rania al-Baz, said that need address social issues. "The reason more women don't complain about physical abuse by their husbands is social conditioning. We're not taught to speak out and ask for our rights. We need to change the way we view ourselves and our lives. We need to change from the inside out," she said, according to the Christian Science Monitor.

Similar questions are being raised in other Gulf countries, both because of external and internal pressure:

Before 1999, women did not have the right to vote in any of the six Gulf Cooperation Council members. In two of these states--Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates--neither men nor women can vote, so it was never a gender issue. (In Saudi Arabia, citizens air grievances in palace assemblies and the rulers of the seven emirates set policy in the United Arab Emirates.) But in the past five years women have broken voting barriers in the other countries. They have voted and run for office in Qatar, Oman and Bahrain. Now, Kuwait's parliament faces a vote on a bill conferring voting rights on female citizens.

Of course, Kuwait has had such votes before, and so far has not agreed to female suffrage. But in Bahrain, where women gained the vote in 2001, more women than men voted in the next municipal elections, and last April Bahrain appointed its first female minister ever, Dr. Nada Abbas Haffadh, to run the health ministry. Maybe change is in the air?

It's fascinating to note that despite the traditions and laws that affect women's opportunities in the Gulf countries the vast majority of university students in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and United Arab Emirates are female. In Qatar, for example, over seventy percent of university students are women.

This naturally casts considerable doubt on the right-wing U.S. argument that the (relative) lack of male students in American universities is somehow linked to an imaginary feminist plot not to pay attention to boys' needs. If countries where boys' needs definitely take first place face the same distributional patterns it seems pretty clear that the cause is not in feminism, even in its imaginary forms. Just wanted to mention that again.

I also want to mention that during the First Gulf War an ex-colleague of mine started advocating a ban on female drivers in the United States. He thought that it was very funny, though perhaps a little less so after I provided him with a few decades worth of reading on the actual accident rates by sex of the driver, adjusted for miles driven. Sigh. Some people just don't have any sense of humor.