Islam, it now turns out, is more flexible than everyone thought it was. King Salman of Saudi Arabia signed a royal decree last week stipulating that allowing women to drive an automobile won’t offend Allah, after all. The mutaween, the religious police assigned to promote virtue where they find it and eradicate vice anywhere, will soon inherit an easier work day.
The royal order has not gone down well with hard-line Wahhabi and Salafist imams and ayatollahs on the Arabian Peninsula, who prefer enforcing the tradition of women as chattel, like goats and camels, the property of the men in the family. Even with a driver’s license, Saudi women will still require permission from male guardians to marry or to divorce unsuitable husbands, but women in Saudi Arabia must look for hope, like virtue, where they find it. Getting the right to drive is a first small step for womankind.
This first step, small as it might be, is said in Riyadh to be unlike anything the country has seen since its founding in 1932. Riyadh, like Rome, wasn’t built in a day.
“The real question,” says Madawi al-Rasheed, a Middle East scholar at the London School of Economics, writing on the website Middle East Eye website, “is whether this is a short-lived, empty public-relations stunt or the beginning of fundamental reform in the kingdom.” This is no doubt what alarms the imams and ayatollahs, who usually think that keeping a sandal on the necks of women is a good thing. Once women start driving their BMWs and Lexuses hither and yon, you never know what comes next. But at last the Saudis will be introduced to woman-driver jokes, as unfunny and chauvinist as they may be.
Saudi women expecting miracles must beware of loopholes. Two days after the decree was issued, a government spokesman announced that women would be permitted to drive at the age of 18, so as to clarify the edict, which had stipulated without elaboration that the change must “adhere to the necessary Shariah standard.” That led to speculation that restrictions might include a higher driving age than for men — or even restrict the hours in the day that women could drive. That’s still unclarified.
Attempted clarification aside, some women remain skeptical. “[The] Saudi order was about issuing driver’s licenses to women by June 2018 pending committee recommendations,” tweeted Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights. “This is far from letting women drive.” The clarifications of committees is a bureaucratic dodge as old as the earliest committee.
The prospect of issuing driver’s licenses to women raises another important question: Will that mean “lifting the veil?” The niqab, which covers the female face from head to toe, as it were, is, like Henry Ford’s Model T, available in any color milady wants it as long as she wants black, and it’s anything but “the little black dress.” The niqab, sometimes with a mesh screen covering the eyes-only slit, would restrict the peripheral vision necessary to drive safely.
There’s the further issue of the driver’s license photograph. Women would have to take off their niqabs for that, offering a view of the forbidden now restricted to their husbands. It’s not easy making the transition to a few new centuries, but hope springs eternal. “Women driving is a major milestone in our country,” Hind Alhazid, a Saudi businesswoman, tells The Washington Post. “I believe it will lead to a positive culture revolution.”
It will lead to other frustrations, too, not least joining the eternal search for a parking space. Women might one day recall our own as a golden age, when a brother or a son drove them about their duties, and women could leave the driving to others.
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