Driving Change in Saudi Arabia

As a Muslim-American, I am often asked about my view on women's rights. Questions about Islamic perspectives on gender are all too often linked with the land where Islam had its advent - Saudi Arabia. The country continues to follow the most draconian interpretation of gender segregation from literalist and static scriptural laws. It is thus no surprise that in a recent World Bank study of 143 countries, Saudi Arabia was ranked the worst in limiting the economic potential of women. The most iconic discrimination which Saudi women face is a prohibition from driving cars - the only country in the world to have such enforcement for fear of religious orthodoxy (even though there is technically no Saudi law preventing women from driving, no licenses are issued for fear of clerical protest). On October 26th of this year Saudi activists have called for women to defy this ban. The activists have already been harassed by clerics like Saad Al-Lohaidaan claiming that driving will damage women's ovaries! Activist web sites have been blocked and intimidation at home continues from male household members.

Saudi Arabia's elite who often live a double-life of liberal luxury overseas have often said that their country needs time and cultural change must proceed with 'caution' to prevent rebellion. Yet there is hardly any change on the horizon. Moribund traditionalism must be confronted directly since the conservative establishment does not even have a plan for social development. Reformists note that the only real change in Saudi laws towards women occurred when the late King Faisal decreed that women could attend school in 1960. He refused to buckle under the extreme views of the clerics and perhaps was assassinated as a result but women's education has endured and currently 60% of university graduates in Saudi Arabia are women.

The Saudi government must realise that the only way of change against theocratic forces is to provide an alternative theological narrative and adhere to it. Incremental change seldom works with absolutist ideological forces and often entrenches inertia. There is no doubt that allowing women to drive will unsettle the clerics in the Saudi hinterland but this is a price the Saudi government must pay for empowering 50 per cent of their population. Indeed some Saudi women might well be quite sanguine about their subservience as well. Living lives of luxury with chauffeurs and servants can also mitigate a yearning for emancipation.

Furthermore, the evangelism of the Saudi extremists is eroding the edifice of pluralism within the Muslim world and needs to be countered. Even progressive Muslim states are being radicalised by such exclusionary, intolerant and xenophobic views which have already spread across my land of origin -- Pakistan. During my last visit to Pakistan, I came across clerics who openly supported Saudi prohibition on women driving as well. Furthermore, focusing on the child-bearing role of women and given their rejection of contraception, the birth rate of fanatics is much higher than moderates. The same problem is also true of extreme versions of Judaism that have radicalised Israeli society through a demographic shift.

So what can we all do? American professionals, including academics, are lavished with hospitality and contracts to buy their acquiescence by the Saudis. Such indulgences must be rejected. During the apartheid years, South Africa's racist elite were shamed into changing their behaviour. While sanctions against Saudi Arabia are impossible to fathom due to the country's oil power, individual acts of protest must continue and rise. The right to drive can be a simple and symbolic focus of action and is by no means a call for revolution. However, there needs to be clarity of purpose among civil society that women cannot be deprived of the basic right of modern mobility. I have personally committed to rejecting any lectures or contracts from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia until women are allowed to drive. Muslim scholars and professionals must not let one country distort their Faith and prevent half of their population from harnessing their abilities. No matter how small the initial impact, incremental acts of civil protest can create momentum for change. October 26th 2013 must be supported as a day of deliverance for women drivers in Saudi Arabia and the start of a human rights reform effort in the land which remains most holy to Muslims worldwide.