By Jihane Bergaoui and Jan Erickson
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has long enjoyed a strategically fruitful relationship with the United States. In return for providing the U.S. with a geo-politically important Arab ally in the Middle East, and a significant economic and energy partner, Saudi Arabia has benefited from a complete lack of accountability regarding its abysmal human rights record, especially given the appalling way it treats the female half of its population.
With the recent ascension of a new – possibly even more conservative – King, the U.S. government cannot afford to continue its hypocritical policy of appeasing the Saudi rulers by closing their eyes to the horrific ways women are legally discriminated against in Saudi Arabia.
The World Economic Forum ranks Saudi Arabia 130th out of 142 countries in its 2014 Global Gender Gap Report. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where women are still not legally allowed to drive a car. Women and girls in Saudi Arabia also require the permission of a male guardian (usually their husband, father, brother, or even their son in certain cases) to conduct any official business, undergo certain life-saving medical procedures, or travel.
Such laws relegate the women of Saudi Arabia to second-class citizenship status. In fact, in 2012, the Saudi government implemented a new travel policy of alerting men via text message whenever “their female(s)” would attempt to leave the country, placing many women fleeing domestic abuse at even greater risk. Most ironically, despite its discriminatory laws and abusive practices that many see as violating international human rights standards, Saudi Arabia currently serves on the U.N. Human Rights Council. Saudi Arabia is a state party to several international human rights conventions (treaties).
On February 6, 2014 the National Organization for Women Foundation joined nine other women’s rights and human rights organizations in endorsing a bipartisan letter coordinated by Reps. James McGovern (D- Mass.) and Peter Roskam (R-Ill.) and signed by 67 members of Congress. McGovern released on March 4 the letter addressed to Saudi Arabia’s new King Salman urging the King to make critical human rights reforms, including ending the ban on women driving and reforming the discriminatory male guardianship system. The letter also cites examples of harsh penalties such as imprisonment and even a thousand lashes levied on persons who have spoken out in favor of free expression or promoting human and civil rights.
The letter also advocates for the protection of activists, such as Loujain al-Hathloul and Maysa al-Amoudi who were detained for a month and referred to a special “terrorism” court for driving as women in Saudi Arabia. As the letter states, “all too often, women, religious minorities and peaceful political reformers have faced major obstacles to their desire to freely express themselves and fully participate in public life in Saudi Arabia. These obstacles include intimidation, harassment, and threats, and some have paid a heavy price for their efforts.”
For several decades activists have pushed for women being allowed to drive, calling the restriction a denial of a fundamental human right. More recently, a special date, October 26, was designated in the hope that it would spawn an international campaign on behalf of women driving. About 60 women challenged the ban on that day of action in 2013 by getting in their cars and doing what women in the much of the rest of the world do: drive. Predictably, this sparked a wave of outrage and retaliation by Saudi government and ultra-conservative Islamic leaders.
One cleric, Sheikh Saleh Al-Loheidan, was quoted on a Saudi news website as reported by CNN.com, “If a woman drives a car, it could have a negative physiological impact…Medical studies show that it would automatically affect a woman’s ovaries and that it pushes the pelvis upward.”
The cleric added, “We find that for women who continually drive cars, their children are born with varying degrees of clinical problems.”
Women’s reproductive parts being brought up as part of a not-so-subtle threat against women exerting more personal freedom is laughable as well as pathetic — whether made in Saudi Arabia or the U.S.
It is important to note that many of the repressive rules in Saudi Arabia have no basis in Islamic tradition. They originate instead from patriarchic cultural practices that existed in the Arab peninsula pre-Islam. For example: Aisha, a wife of the Prophet Muhammad and a role model for women in Islam actually rode a camel into battle—which can be construed as the ancient equivalent of a car.
Saudi women have been detained or fired from their jobs for driving; many obtain their driving licenses while visiting other countries. A youthful Saudi population that travels and studies abroad and utilizes social media suggests that the driving restriction may be doomed. We can only hope that that day for more freedom for Saudi women arrives soon.