The idea behind the viral video ”No Woman, No Drive,” came to Saudi comedian Hisham Fageeh in the shower. He was singing Bob Marley to himself and the idea started turning around in his head. A couple of months later, when Twitter was abuzz with talk that Saudi Arabian women would defy the ban on driving by mounting a demonstration on October 26, Fageeh and his two friends, Saudi musicians Fahad Albutairi and Alaa Wardi, decided to produce a video to coincide with the day of protest.
In the end, some 60 women defiantly took the wheel in the ultra-conservative Kingdom of Saudi of Arabia, but around the world almost 3 million (and counting) have watched Fageeh’s politically charged reggae spoof mocking the ban.
Fageeh captures perfectly the kingdom’s real-life theater of the absurd. There’s no law on the books, as such, that says women can’t drive. But they can’t get Saudi licenses and days before October 26 the Ministry of Interior issued a statement saying that the country’s laws “prohibit activities disturbing the public peace,” which is the charge leveled against women drivers in the past. (Driving without a Saudi license brings a fine of up to 900 Riyals, roughly $240. But many of the women who drove on Saturday had foreign driving licenses.)
While the Saudi government officials issued harsh warnings to political dissenters or anyone supporting female drivers, there have been no reported arrests or fines, and the young comedian says he’s not afraid in the least. So far, he tells the Daily Beast, he’s gotten “nothing but love” in response to the video, from everyone from Saudi grandmothers to New York hipsters. “It resonated with people,” he says. “It was relevant to them.”
The 26-year-old Fageeh, born in Riyadh, first discovered his knack for making people laugh after moving to the United States in his teens. But it was a bumpy road. He started high school in Florida just one year after 9/11, and his fellow students wouldn’t cut him a break: “It was very much like ‘f**k terrorists,’ ‘f**k Osama Bin Laden,’ f**k anything that isn’t white,” he remembers. The experience, he insists, helped make him the man – and the comedian – he is today.
Fageeh went on to study religion and the Middle East at Florida State University. He worked in educational development for a while in Rwanda, then landed at the somewhat controversial Muslim Public Affairs Council in Washington D.C., where he worked on a study about American Muslim civil identity. It was then he started dabbling in stand up comedy. The fast-moving, competitive capital of the United States forced him out of his more reserved shell, he says.
African-American comedy star Dave Chappelle (Half Baked and Chappelle’s Show) was his first stand up idol. Fageeh still recalls seeing him perform live. “There was this energetic force,” he says, “I knew I was experiencing something big.”
Fageeh decided to test out the big city waters of New York, so he applied to Columbia University and nested in Harlem. He fell in love with the place, and even more deeply infatuated with the world of comedy there, which included a lively, irreverent group of Arab-Americans. He still remembers the laughter of his first few stand up performances. “It was like heroin,” he says. “I was addicted.”
The budding young comic then started a web series on YouTube impersonating what he describes as a “conservative, racist Saudi character.” It began as an inside joke with his little sister, but quickly gained a surprising following: the first video got 19 hits, the third one, 300, and the fifth, 80,000. Soon, he was an Internet sensation. The media production team Telfaz11, his current comedic home, spotted his potential.
Fageeh says he comes from a conservative family, but they’ve been very supportive – especially after his recent hit. “My little sister was cracking up,” he says. “And my dad is really loving me being a comedian.”
While the video has a light-hearted vibe, the ironic satire is sharp, and because the reasons given by ultra-conservative Saudis for keeping women away from the driver’s seat are so surreal, they do make easy targets. There’s the claim, for instance, that driving might damage women’s reproductive organs. “Ovaries, so safe and well,” Fageeh intones, “so you can make lots and lots of babies.”
“Your feet is your only carriage, but only inside the house. And when I say it I mean it,” Fageeh sings in another line, addressing Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship law which strictly limits a woman’s ability to travel, work, open a bank account, marry, or undergo certain medical procedures without the consent of a male guardian. In some cases, this guardian could be a young son.
In the video, Fageeh touches on the importance of tradition in the debate on women driving, and parodies the non-sequitur conclusions drawn from it: “In this bright future, you can’t forget your past,” he sings, “So put your keys away.”
For the young Saudi comic, this issue of tradition blocking the future is, in fact, the biggest point of contention in his society. “This is what we’ve always done,” Fageeh says, sarcastically. “And now you’re doing the opposite. How dare you!”
On Fageeh’s public Facebook page, he quotes writer George Orwell: “Every joke is a tiny revolution.” And Fageeh says, for him, the word ‘revolution’ has two meanings: the philosophical state of revolving and constantly changing, and also the political act of revolting. And right now, in Saudi Arabia, both are taking place on small scales.
“The conversations happening now have taken generations,” Fageeh says. “It’s a recipe for change.”