Why Couldn’t Women in Saudi Arabia Drive?

Why Couldn’t Women in Saudi Arabia Drive?

The battle against sexism isn’t over anywhere.

Still, it’s shocking to know that until recently women in Saudi Arabia weren’t allowed to drive a car. What good explanation could there be?

The rulers of Saudi Arabia had their reasons. Safety was a concern given that women are required to cover their faces almost completely in public. Could they see clearly enough to drive? And what if they crashed? That could lead to unsupervised communication with a man outside her family.

Reasons of this sort may seem more ridiculous than reassuring. But they do point to the heart of the issue, which is this: why is Saudi Arabia so extraordinarily conservative? Not just on driving, not just towards women. Why is it so strict?

It’s much too simple to say, “Because Saudi Arabia is a Muslim country.” There are other countries where Muslims make up a majority of the population, and women are allowed to drive in all of them, you’ll be glad to know.

So what’s special about Saudi? Part of the answer is that it is home to Mecca and Medina, the two holiest cities in the Muslim world. Muhammad, the man whose prophesies launched Islam, was from Mecca. Each year, millions of Muslims travel there on pilgrimage. It would be surprising if Saudi Arabia, the guardian of these sites, were religiously lax.

However, there’s more to Saudi severity than that. To understand it, you need to know about a deal the Saudi ruling family made with a type of Islam that is as controversial as it is conservative.

Arabia is a desert. If you have an image of caravans, sand, and the occasional oasis, that would be a pretty good representation of most of its past. Different tribes vied for power, one of which was led by the Saud family. In the eighteenth century, they defeated their rivals and took control of Arabia largely because of an alliance they made with a militant Muslim reformer, Muhammad al-Wahhab.

Al-Wahhab was highly critical of the Islam of his day. Everyone agreed that one should believe in the one true God but al-Wahhab preached that you were an idolater unless you rejected every other possible object of devotion. So no shrines, no astrology, no sorcery, no vows, no images. Nothing, other than austere worship of Allah. And if you did anything else, you would incur the wrath—verbal then very physical—of al-Wahhab and his Saudi allies.

Al-Wahhab and the Saudis conquered Arabia with their terror. Many loyal Muslims were branded idolaters and killed. Al-Wahhab declared entire towns apostate then attacked them in what he believed was a righteous war, or jihad.

This happened more than two hundred years ago. Eventually, an Egyptian army defeated the followers of al-Wahhab. The Saudi king was executed, his corpse put on public display. 

In the early 1900’s, however, a new Saudi chieftain emerged: Abdulazid ibn-Saud. He began by conquering the interior of Arabia, winning the loyalty of other tribes by giving them agricultural supplies and arms. They then had to fight for him. In 1924, ibn-Saud’s armies seized Mecca and Medina, creating the state we know as Saudi Arabia.

Ibn-Saud was more measured than his forebears. He did an outstanding job forging a nation out of what had long been warring tribes. But like the Sauds before him he was a Wahhabi Muslim, and he gave Wahhabi clergy, or the ulama as they were known, substantial power.

That fact goes a long way to explaining why Saudi Arabia is such an unusual country today, including why women couldn’t drive. The king still makes all the major decisions—there are no elected representatives—but the Wahhabi ulama exert enormous sway over people’s daily lives.

Take education. The ulama has authority to monitor what is taught and how. So religious instruction is part of every degree, and women and men study in separate classes. The ulama also enforced public morality. High on the list of requirements is that women always wear black cloaks and headscarves in public. And under no circumstances could they drive a car.

As long as oil money keeps flowing in, the system just about works. Saudi women and men don’t enjoy all the freedoms they might want, but health care and education are good and there is wealth, good jobs, and prestige to be had for those who make it to the top.

When the price of oil falls, as it did in the 1990’s, people become restless. How long Saudi Arabia can continue as a restrictive, religious monarchy is anyone’s guess. Solar technology is probably the greatest threat to the Saudi ruling house and their Wahhabi collaborators, because of the impact it may have on the price of oil.  But it’s unlikely that many Saudi women will be driving electric cars: fuel in Saudi Arabia is three times cheaper than in the US and eight times cheaper than in Singapore and Norway.

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