Sunday, August 7, 2011

No "Spring" for Saudi Women

In the midst of the Arab awakening, women fighting oppression—in Saudi or any other Muslim nation—is doomed to fade away into a dark night.

Earlier this year, the world watched with bated breath as Egyptian women took to the streets alongside men to protest Mubarak’s rule and demand democracy. Cynically, men encouraged women’s participation—only to betray them once Mubarak was removed. Merely a few months later, Egypt—formerly the more modern among Muslim nations—has regressed into gender apartheid the like of which the country has not been seen in decades, and “modesty squads” roam neighborhoods in search of errant women whose appearance or behavior defy the Extreme Islam’s dictates.

Does anyone believe that Saudi women will fare better in their quest for the right to drive? In 2010, the Global Gender Gap Report ranked Saudi Arabia 129th out of 134 countries for gender parity (down from spot #114 in 2006.) Islamic patriarchal system has kept Saudi women not just from driving, but from traveling, working and even signing medical forms without the permission of a male guardian—any male relative, even their own minor child.

Gender apartheid is the basis for the entire Muslim social structure. The Arabic word “fitna” means both civil disorder and beautiful woman. In his 2004 article, “Female Desire and Islamic Trauma,” Islam scholar Daniel Pipes explains:

“The entire Muslim social structure… goes to great lengths to separate the sexes and reduce contact between them. This explains such customs as the covering of women's faces and the separation of women's residential quarters, or the harem. Many other institutions serve to reduce female power over men, such as her need for a male's permission to travel, work, marry, or divorce. Revealingly, a traditional Muslim wedding took place between two men – the groom and the bride's guardian.” The reason, Dr. Pipes explains, is rooted by the view that a woman’s sexual desire is so great, that believers are obsessed with the dangers posed by her presence. “So strong are her [sexual] needs …she represents the forces of unreason and disorder. …She must be contained, for her unbridled sexuality poses a direct danger to the social order.”

For that reason, in 2002, in Saudi Arabia, religious policemen prevented fourteen-year-old schoolgirls from leaving a burning school building because they were not wearing their headscarves and abayahs. Fifteen girls died.

The Quran was written long before automobiles were invented. Therefore, it did not specifically prohibit women from driving. It did not even forbid women from riding horses or camels. And in a society obsessed with the modesty of women’s dress, cars actually hide women better than any other methods of transportation. Saudi Arabia’s leaders’ explanation that women driving is unsafe and leads to sexual impropriety is entirely false, as women are routinely pinched and groped through the chadors when walking in the streets, and are often sexually harassed by taxi drivers—or even raped by their own chauffeurs.

On the other hand, driving women around has created a source of income for many Saudi men: there are hundreds of thousands of chauffeurs in Saudi Arabia. Removing the religious fatwa against women driving would deeply affect an entire profession.

Phyllis Chesler has written extensively that subjugating women is behind the brutal misogynistic Islamic practices such as female genital mutilation, stoning and immolation of women, beatings, forced marriages, child marriages and polygamy. Now that Muslim feminists are taking to the streets in protest for the right to drive, they are beaten by mobs, yet have no legal protection even in cases of barbaric assault or rape. Zuhdi Jasser, president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, commented at "… [Saudi] women's rights activists have very little [legal] protection for their physical well-being …This is the problem in a corrupt society…. Republics of fear oppress and repress their citizens by allowing criminals to do the dirty work of the government. It allows the government to keep [its] hands free."

Saudi Arabia is the only country that prohibits women from driving. But viewing the protesting women in context of the men’s dread of female power to cause civil disorder, it is clear that breaking any taboo carries the unthinkable threat of women seeking rights for representation in government, in marriage and divorce, or in property ownership.

In the midst of the Arab awakening, women fighting oppression—in Saudi or any other Muslim nation—is doomed to fade away into a dark night, because the power to relinquish control lies in the hands of their oppressors: men, government, and Islamic religious leadership.

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Author Talia Carner’s novel, JERUSALEM MAIDEN (HarperCollins, June 2011) is the story of a woman’s struggle for individuality and freedom within the confines of her society’s strict religious dictates.

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