Last Friday, Saudi cleric Sheikh Saleh bin Saad al-Lohaidan, stated that if women were allowed to drive, it would harm their ovaries. Driving “pushes the pelvis upwards” and women who hope to get behind a wheel should “put reason ahead of their hearts, emotions and passions.”
Silly girls and their silly hearts.
Lohaidan may be in for quite a shock because a new grassroots movement inside Saudi Arabia is slowly taking shape. On October 26, women throughout the Kingdom will risk prison by driving cars. Such protests have happened before, typically with a small number of women, many of whom quickly get arrested.
But this time could be different. Just after the website announcing this initiative was shut down in Saudi Arabia, one prominent Saudi women’s rights activist told me on condition of anonymity that “This time will be different. The women are going to be much bolder now.” The wall of fear, she believes, is steadily eroding, even in the face of fierce crackdowns against activists.
Saudi Arabia, though seemingly stable from the outside, is anything but. Could protests in the eastern province or a slew of new arrests against dissidents be the spark that shakes the core of the kingdom? Just Wednesday, prominent human rights activist, Walid Abu Al Khair, was detained for an “unauthorized” meeting of reformists. In 2011, few thought that the immolation of a single fruit vendor in Tunisia could ignite revolutions throughout the Middle East.
Lohaidan, a judicial advisor to a Gulf psychologists association, has been widely ridiculed by young Saudis on Twitter. Personally, I’d like to see a meeting between Lohaidan and Leilani Munter, named one of the top ten female race-car drivers by Sports Illustrated. Back in 2011, when I created the First Annual Saudi Women’s Grand Prix, Munter wrote:
As a female race car driver and as a woman [who] has traveled to Saudi Arabia and seen the oppression of women first hand (and experienced it myself while I was there) I strongly support the Saudi Women's Grand Prix. When I traveled to Saudi Arabia in the 90s, I met a woman who was a brilliant doctor and she had tears in her eyes when she asked me, "If I ever make it to America, will you teach me how to drive a car?" She had to spend much of the money she made as a physician on having a full time driver take her wherever she needed to go. It is outrageous that in America, I can drive 200 mph on a racetrack inches from my male competitors, but women are not even allowed to drive on the streets in Saudi Arabia. It is high time for a change. Let's do this, ladies!
Leading American and European policy-makers, citizens from dozens of countries around the world and racing legends like Janet Guthrie, the first women to race in the Indianapolis 500 and Daytona 500, joined us in asking King Abdullah to co-sponsor the First Annual Saudi Women’s Grand Prix in Riyadh.
But rather than dismantle the guardianship system which turns women into the property of men, the Saudi regime has sentenced women’s rights activists like Wajeha al Huweidar to prison on trumped up charges. It has also massively funded the religious police which enforces gender apartheid. Small symbolic measures like appointing a female deputy minister have done little change the near total domination men enjoy over the daily lives and decisions of women.
In April 2013, Saudi Justice Minister Muhammad al-Issa was asked about women driving. “If Saudi society—given its culture—wishes for women to drive, it’s fine, but if society has any reservation, for whatever reason, that’s fine too.” You know, like choosing an ice-cream flavor or favorite color. No right or wrong here. Just different strokes for different folks. You say tomato, I say barbaric, theocratic, misogynistic, tyrannical, gender apartheid.
Saudi apologists will tell you that the king really wants equality for women but is surrounded by hard-liners who don’t. It’s a neat narrative. Don’t blame Abdullah. What more could Abdullah do? It’s not like he’s the king or something.
October 26 could be a seminal moment where the West stands firmly on the side of human rights instead of continuing to give a blank check to the Saudi dictatorship. The right to travel and move about freely is as fundamental a right as any. To attain this right, on that day, women in Saudi Arabia, and the world over, should get behind a wheel and put the pedal to the metal.
Idiots like Lohaidan and dictators like Abdullah will be left in the dust as Saudi women speed away in ovary-drive.
David Keyes is the executive director of Advancing Human Rights and co-founder of CyberDissidents.org. He is a contributor to The Daily Beast and has written for The New York Times, the Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Foreign Policy and many other publications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.