Thursday, June 02, 2005

The Saudis and Women With Wheels

A Saudi Conservative Council member got into trouble for suggesting a study about reversing the ban on women driving:

He just wanted his colleagues in the government's legislative arm to discuss the possibility of conducting a study into the feasibility of reversing the ban on women drivers -- the only prohibition of its kind in the world.

But 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. He gets phone text messages calling on Allah to freeze his blood. Chat rooms bristle with insulting accusations that al-Zulfa is "driven by carnal instincts with 454 horsepower."

There even have been calls to kick al-Zulfa from the council and strip him of his Saudi nationality.

I see all of this as being about control of women. Control of women is necessary in the Saudi society. If women are not controlled, things will change and quite rapidly. The feeling the opponents of Al-Zulfa's proposal have is something I can imagine, after working on empathy for a long time: like standing on quicksand, not knowing what will happen next and fearing total chaos.

But oppressing women is still wrong. And for each person imprisoned by society's suffocating rules a warden is needed. Thus, the system imprisons more than those intended. In Saudi Arabia, for example, drivers are needed for all those wealthy women who can't drive themselves, and in less wealthy families the men must be ready to chauffeur women every day (or else let them languish at home). All this takes resources that would be better spent elsewhere, if there wasn't that fear-inducing chaos waiting around the corner.

Somewhere in Massachusetts I came upon a cemetery which had a tombstone for the first woman who got a driver's licence in the United States. I know this because the fact was so important that it was engraved on her tombstone. I took a picture of the stone and if I can find it I will post it here.