More than a metaphor: Saudi women’s drive for independence

More than a metaphor: Saudi women’s drive for independence

It has been over a year sinceM a n a l Al-Sharif’s defiance of the Saudi ban on women behind the wheel landed her in jail and sparked a social movement, Women2Drive.

The initiative may have been overlooked by the world community amid reporting of the ‘Arab Spring’, but is nevertheless quietly gaining momentum through social media. Manal Al-Sharif for instance recently received an award for being one of 2the top 100 influential people by the Time magazine. Metaphors abound with regard to this issue. In fact, it is very tempting to view it in terms of its abundant symbolic aspects and associations. The very word ‘drive’ has multiple connotations — it indicates mobility, action, will, ambition, autonomy. ‘Taking the wheel’ is figuratively as well as literally an act of taking control. Yet there is a real danger in overstating these (admittedly powerful) symbolic associations with driving. Take, for example, the illogical and yet seemingly irrefutable guilt by association: Women in western countries drive, and these societies are prone to a higher incidence of adultery, divorce, and general amorality. Correlation is not causation, as anyone conversant with scientific methodology will tell you, but the retreat into metaphor makes the whole argument poetic rather than factual. And yet it is the cold, hard facts that make the case for allowing women to drive most compelling: Hiring a driver is an economic hardship for most Saudi women: The ability to get around becomes a matter of class and privilege, and that, surely, is coherent with no one’s moral code. Women are made more vulnerable rather than better protected by the ban on driving. The same rules and

traditions that would seek to sequester and shelter women often leave them open to unusually vulnerable and compromising positions. Then there is the fact that tradition and custom itself has been selectively misinterpreted with regard to this issue. Saudi women in rural areas are allowed to drive, but not those residing in urban centers. Moreover, women in Aramco can drive, but once out of that area, the right is revoked. The self-contradictory nature of the driving ban and the manipulation of abstract associations of getting behind the wheel enable the fallacy of the slippery slope. In truth, the association between driving, virtue and tradition has absolutely no basis in fact, and the positive symbolic associations are no match for the countervailing ability to twist words and concepts. Instead, here are a few real and concrete things that th right to drive provides:

Participation: Driving a car can be an almost essential aspect of social participation. How can a woman get to school or work? How can she get her children to where they need to go? How can she arrive at a place where she can talk to likeminded others?

Movement: This issue is self-explanatory. But it does bring to mind a couple of choice historical analogs and parallels — the Chinese bound feet, for example. Or how about the corsets that inhibited women’s breathing and therefore their movement, in nineteenth century Europe? These are recognized, now, as vain, decadent and wasteful impediments to movement — wasteful because they wasted ability and time. There are enough real and unavoidable impediments to movement, to participation, and to just plain efficiency in today’s complex world. The Saudi ban on women’s driving is an avoidable and unnecessary impediment, and having the courage to remove it may yield unexpected benefits and enable Saudi women to more effectively contribute to the fabric of society.


Dr. Alaa Alghamdi, Assistant Professor Taibah University Madinah
[email protected]


Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point of view