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Driving Ms. Saudi

“This is not a revolution,” Madiha al-Ajroush told the New York Times when, unaccompanied, she decided to go for a drive. “And it will not be turned into a revolution.”

Of course she’s dead wrong, and the Saudi psychologist knows she’s wrong. Her decision to try to get behind the steering wheel (she failed in that attempt) was joined by a few dozen other female Saudis who were more successful in their pursuits. And make no mistake: despite their small numbers, what those women did is definitely a revolution. Saudi Arabia’s social code prohibits women drivers. Those female citizens who need transportation also need a male driver. Without the latter, the lone woman who chooses to defy convention can find herself deprived of her liberty, her job, or both.

But to examine why it is that Saudi Arabia prohibits this seemingly minor stab at independence, we first have to analyze what kind of threat driving can pose to its society. Ajroush insists that the answer is anodyne, obvious, and purely pragmatic in motive. Behind the wheel, she said, she might do “something as small as get myself a cappuccino or something as grand as taking my child to the emergency room.” But frankly, despite such protests, the threat of these solitary excursions to the society she lives in is massive. One cleric, Sheik Mohammed al-Nujaimi, called the driving campaign a “great danger,” one that would lead, he said, not simply to “the spending of excessive amounts on beauty products,” but also to divorce, a low birthrate, and, yes, adultery.

And guess what? Beauty products aside, I think the sheik has it absolutely right. There’s no telling what a woman might do when she finds herself driving. Or rather, there is. Those automobile gadgets in the front—they’re not called “controls” for nothing.

Here’s what a liberated Saudi woman driver might do if fully empowered—besides snagging a cappuccino:

  • She could drive herself to the nearest airport, from which she might try to fly to another city. Flight from one Saudi city to another can be grounds for divorce since, as a prominent cleric recently concluded, “Such a wife is suspicious because she insisted to travel alone…”
  • She might flee a male relative who insists on her marrying the man of his choice; and she might flee the prospective groom as well.
  • She might find a job without consulting a male relative—and then drive to and from it, also without his consent.
  • She might conclude that because the unbearably slow court system of her own country practically guarantees that women will be elderly before they can get a divorce from, say, an abusive spouse, she should try to end her own marriage elsewhere.
  • She might meet with someone more appealing than her husband, although preferably alone and without observers, since married women adulterers can get stoned to death in Saudi Arabia, if either four males or eight women actually witness the sexual encounter.

In any event, you can see for yourself where all this driving is leading. The impotent Saudi clerics who warn darkly of momentous upheavals in male hegemony and consumer spending, the impotent Saudi government which arrested and fined 16 of the rebels, the impotent Saudi Interior Ministry spokesman who told Agence France-Presse that “laws will be applied against violators,” and of course the bold Saudi rebels themselves, who defiantly posted their driving videos on Twitter—they all know where this is leading.

It’s a revolution, all right. And it’s too late to stop it.

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