Is driving a luxury or a necessity for Saudi women?
For the large majority of Saudi women, the prohibition on female driving comes from a morality based view of their national character. This will be tough to change
Three days ago, the Saudi economic newspaper El-Iqtisadiah ran a front-page news story suggesting that driving is a luxury for women, rather than a necessity. It added that protesters against the ban on women seek to undermine the kingdom's stability and create sedition.
This got me very interested in putting together a questionnaire to test the above ‘hypothesis’, that is, to know whether women's driving is indeed a luxury or in fact a necessity.
As a former lecturer at Al-Lith College for Girls, Um Al-Qura University, Mecca, I thought that using my former female students to complete such a questionnaire would be a good idea. As such, I sent an email to about 60 Saudi female students, with the question: Do you think that driving is a luxury or a necessity for women; and are you for or against women driving?
57 girls responded to my email and, to my surprise, 54 of them stated that they thought women's driving was a luxury rather than a necessity. Overwhelmingly, they said that they were for the ban on female driving.
The majority who opposed women's driving qualified their position on this issue, with many offering a variation of the same arguments: that allowing women to drive would widely open the door to sexual harassment; and that allowing women to drive would encourage women to imitate men in other aspects of life, resulting in societal liquidation.
Here I quote from three of the emails I received (for reasons of privacy, I won't mention names):
"In my point of view, female driving is not a necessity because in the country of the two Holy Mosques every woman is like a queen and a woman needs nothing as long as there is a man who loves her and meets her needs. As for the current campaigns calling for women's driving, they are not reasonable; female driving is a matter of fun and amusement; let us be reasonable and thank God so much for the welfare we live in."
''Honestly, I don't like women to drive; this will create sedition… I agree that there are already different kinds of sedition we see every day, but the right place for a woman is her house, this will really save her from what is happening in the outside world''
"If they allow women to drive, there will be many negative effects on the whole of society (e.g., sexual harassment). Furthermore, there will be many things that don't comply with our Islamic principles; this would lead women to imitate men in everything, and who knows… there may be calls for banning niqab. This way woman would lose their femininity and if a woman goes out without a guardian, she may lose her honour.''
An important question here is: if the government were to sanction a vote on a law that allows Saudi women to drive, how would women en masse respond?
As a researcher in cognitive science, I can say that they would, for sure, say ''No.''
Importantly, politics, according to George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist, is about morality and worldview. That is, people vote with their values and identity. They don't just vote on the issues or programmes.
For the large majority of Saudi women, the prohibition on female driving comes from a morality based view of their national character. This is, their own version of freedom.
This worldview is realised as a brain circuit with strong synapses. Using the right language in the media will strengthen this worldview.
To change this conservative worldview, we must reach in to Saudi minds. But don’t bet on it being easy.
The writer is an Egyptian artist and a PhD student
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