Driving in Riyadh - If You're Female

by Dr. David L. Johnston

Pretty near the core of American culture is the automobile. The average family owns two or three of them, and from high school on, all of us, men and women, see cars as the extension of our personality, our pride (well, for men at least!), and our freedom. Gas prices notwithstanding, we’ll keep driving!

Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where women are banned from driving. Many leading princes among the more than 5,000 of their peers favor a lifting of the ban. But many others side with the conservative elements in Saudi society and see this as kowtowing to western norms. For them, allowing women behind the wheel is to slide down the slippery slope of women’s liberation with all the immorality and filth it leads to.

Meanwhile, close to a million male drivers (mostly from South Asia) are employed to drive Saudi women around to their appointments – always accompanied by the mandatory male relative chaperone. Their average salary is $600 a month, which many people even in Saudi Arabia cannot afford. "Forget the price, though," critics of the ban retort. "Why are women singled out as second-class citizens of the kingdom? Why should their freedom be curtailed here, as in many other areas?" (I’ll get to the mandatory black covering all women have to wear in public in a later blog).

This question opens up a series of four blogs I’m writing on “Islam” and human rights. In all of these you will come to see why I have to put “Islam” in quotation marks. As with any other religious tradition, “Islam” is what particular groups of people or individuals in specific times and climes interpret the sacred texts to be saying. Here I want to convince you of one thing: the opinion of Muslims around the world about women’s rights is diverse and changing.

You’ve heard me quote the massive Gallup Poll of Muslims in over 35 different countries before.That’s because it’s the best bird’s eye view of what Muslims actually think – not what the media tells you they think.

On the one hand, Muslim women tend to be strongly religious. In most countries polled, large majorities of women state that “religion is an important part of life.” Another staple answer to the question, “what do you most admire about your society?” is “faithful/sincere/attached to religious beliefs/adhere to or respect teachings of Islam” (p. 113).

On the other hand, though Muslim women keenly reject the idea that they need to be “saved” by well-meaning western feminists, they staunchly line up behind the following rights for women (and, amazingly, so do men in just about the same percentages!):

  • the same legal rights as men (85% in Iran, 90% in Indonesia, 61% in Saudi Arabia)
  • rights to vote (93% in Turkey, 90% in Bangladesh, and 56% in Saudi Arabia)
  • the right to hold any job for which they are qualified outside the home (all countries from 90% down to 61% in Jordan)
  • the right to hold leadership positions at cabinet and national council levels (most had majorities, except Saudi Arabia, 40%, and Egypt, 50%)—note too that Pakistan, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Turkey have all had female heads of state!

Add to this the fact that women in just about every Muslim-majority country outperform and outnumber men in the universities (and mostly choose to wear the hijab – and often much to their mothers’ chagrin), and you have the recipe for lots of changes ahead!

Back to the Saudi driving ban for women . . .

You must have been surprised to read last month that hundreds of Saudi women – no doubt jealous of and egged on by other Arab women toppling governments through street protests – organized via Twitter and the like an act of collective civil disobedience. Fewer than expected, but around fifty nonetheless, drove around the capital city Riyadh.

Remarkably, no one was arrested. Likely the main reason was that this was a grassroots campaign launched back in March that attracted considerable world media attention. Yet, one of the women who initiated it, Manal al-Sharif, was detained for nine days last month for posting footage of herself behind the wheel on YouTube.

Consider, however, that the first campaign by women to shake off the yoke of extreme male dominance in 1990 ended much differently. That time, of the fifty women who drove around Riyadh in a convoy for an hour, each and every one of them lost their jobs and passports . . . the times they are a’ changing!

When were women allowed to vote in our country? Less than a hundred years ago . . . and only sixty years ago in Switzerland. This has nothing to do with Islam (the Qur’an says women can’t drive, right?), and there is in fact no written Saudi law saying they can’t drive.

As we will see with the issues of marriage, divorce, inheritance, and apostasy, human rights are now assumed to be part of the Islamic religious heritage. True, they’re not always formulated exactly in the same way by this scholar or that one, and some brag that Muslims invented them 1,400 years ago! Say what you will, but the notion of “human rights” is firmly embedded in today’s Muslim psyche.


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