On October 26th, women in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia got behind the wheel in defiance of the unwritten law prohibiting women from driving. Up to 60 women are said to have participated in the driving protest while thousands more women and men took to the keyboard to voice their support and express their outrage through numerous online petitions. In earlier acts of driving defiance, one woman was spared the taste of the lash when the KSA’s benevolent despot overturned a court sentencing of whipping. In the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings, the KSA has made attempts to appease popular sentiment through promises of limited and gradual reform, including an announcement by King Abdullah that in 2015, women will be allowed the inalienable right to vote and participate in ineffective elections just like Saudi men.
The Sultan’s scholars were unleashed upon the satellite channels to inform the population of the latest scientific findings regarding the damaging of ovaries caused by driving. However, it seems that the advances made in biological science by the Saudi clerical establishment have yet to arouse the attention of the international scientific community, in spite of the elegance and intellectual fecundity of this theory which will no doubt lead to fruitful lines of inquiry in the now flourishing field of ecclesiastical embryology. Perhaps the most cogent and compelling argument for the driving ban was provided by Saudi-American satirist Hisham Fageeh in his latest public service announcement on YouTube:
The KSA is alone among all majority Muslim countries in forbidding women from driving, a “crime” that is supposed to be enforced by the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (PVPV). The ban is justified not by any scriptural proscription against women manually transporting themselves from location to another, but on the grounds that woman being permitted to drive might lead to ikhtilat, free mixing between genders, which may eventually lead to Dionysian debauchery and unmanageable orgia. The legal principle qata al-dharai (cutting off the means to sin) has been applied in such a way in the Kingdom so as to cut off half of its population from full participation in the public sphere and has become a means for making illicit many other matters that scripture has made licit. It has also become a tool to do the reverse, making spying a duty of the virtue police. A great deal of opposition from within the KSA has similarly been based on religio-ethical grounds.
Arguments against gender segregation and in favor of the right for women to travel freely without a male chaperone have emanated from the very heart of the clerical class, including the head of the PVPV in Makkah, Dr. Ahmad al-Ghamidi, citing pre-modern Muslim jurists who held positions that run counter to the Saudi stance. Sheikh Ahmad b. Abd al-Aziz b. Baz, son of the former Grand Mufti of the Kingdom, has expressed similar sentiments. Since 2011 and under the influence of the Arab Spring revolutions that led to the removal of several Heads of State throughout the MENA region, there have been several small but organized protests staged in many parts of the KSA, with some demanding the release of political prisoners, including several Muslim clerics who decried the financial and political corruption of the Saudi regime, while others focus on the oppression of minority groups like the Shiite population primarily in the eastern part of the KSA.
Exiled opposition parties that have existed for decades include the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia (MIRA) led by a professor of surgery Dr. Saad al-Faqih who argues in favor of women’s rights and freedom of speech on religious grounds, along with the Islamic Renewal Party founded by physicist Dr. Mohammad al-Massari who describes the Islamic state as being essentially the same as a civil state. While these sentiments would be palatable to secular human rights activists and groups concentrated in Western countries, neither of these two dissident organizations, both based in the UK, are able to garner a great deal of support due to the fact that their views regarding the scope of state constraints on the freedoms of the citizen are coupled with a vehemently strong stance against any and all forms of American and/or European interference in the affairs of Saudi Arabia or any other majority Muslim country and having expressed, albeit critical, support for militant and insurgent groups that have engaged in conflict with American and Western armed forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. With increasing tensions in US-Saudi relations and more young Saudi women and men taking up the dual responsibility of getting degrees in medicine or one of the “real” sciences while at the same time participating in a struggle for justice in both word and deed, the meager capitulations and pacification measures from the monarchy can only prolong change, not prevent it.