'Negative Physiological Impacts'? Why Saudi Women Aren't Allowed to Drive

The odd restriction is as much cultural as religious.
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Saudi women walk past cars in Riyadh. (Hasan Jamali/AP)

Sheikh Saleh bin Saad al-Lohaidan, a judicial adviser to an association of Gulf psychologists, recently told a Saudi website that "If a woman drives a car, not out of pure necessity, that could have negative physiological impacts as functional and physiological medical studies show that it automatically affects the ovaries and pushes the pelvis upwards. That is why we find those who regularly drive have children with clinical problems of varying degrees.”

It seems he might be confused about the definition of “drive,” and “medical study,” but regardless, the sheikh’s comments point to a major point of tension in Saudi Arabia today: Women aren’t allowed to drive, and many of them desperately want to.

It seems like a bizarre limitation: Unlike in Afghanistan under the Taliban, for example, Saudi women aren’t prohibited from getting educated or even working. And women are allowed to drive in other, conservative Islamic societies such as Iran.

So of all things, why can’t Saudi women drive?

The Kingdom has long adhered to a particularly strict brand of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism, which insists on segregation of the sexes and the veiling of women. In 1990, Saudi women began demanding social reforms, including the right to drive, but instead the religious police cracked down harder, formalizing a driving ban that had previously been unofficial. 

“The incident catalyzed a moral campaign meant to reinforce the feminine ideal of a pious secluded wife and mother,” Jaime Kucinskas, who teaches a course on religion and society at Indiana University, told me in an email. “The state-funded media released a television program showing little girls singing how they were women and did not drive cars.”

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Today, not only are the country’s women prohibited from chauffeuring themselves around, they’re also discouraged from traveling alone or using public transportation. Driver’s licenses are issued only to men.

Women’s-rights groups have staged several small demonstrations to push for driving rights in recent years, but they’ve so far made little headway. The newest campaign calls for women to drive on October 26 in protest, but the Saudi government shut down the campaign’s website.

More broadly, there is strong resistance to Saudi women participating in public life, including working jobs that would put them in contact with men. At least 34 percent of Saudi women who say they want to work are unemployed, a rate that’s just 7 percent for the country’s job-seeking men.

This is in spite of the country’s opening dozens of new colleges in the past decade and providing scholarships for thousands of Saudi women to travel overseas to study.

Once these women return home, they face a severely restrictive environment. In many families, women are not able to leave home without a male guardian or to mingle casually with the opposite sex.

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah promoted some reforms in the country in 2009, appointing a female deputy minister and opening a mixed-sex university. However, the country’s clerics decried his actions as too progressive. 

Sheikh Salman al-Duwaysh said women had “abandoned their basic duties such as housekeeping, bringing up children ... and replaced this by beautifying themselves and wantonness,” to name just one example uncovered by Wikileaks.

Some women-only businesses that don’t involve direct customer contact have since been created, and in a first, the Kingdom licensed its first four female lawyers yesterday. Still, it’s rare to see women working in public, and many stores and restaurants are divided by sex.

Women are expected to have the consent of their guardian (a husband usually, or otherwise a father or close male relative) for virtually every activity—including work, school, and travel. 

Driving is a direct extension of this type of religion-based segregation. As one Saudi man explained to a Christian Science Monitor reporter, “What would happen if a woman got in a car accident? Then she would be forced to deal with the male driver of the other car, a stranger, with no oversight."

“The ideal of feminine piety is associated with home, the need for protection and subsequent seclusion,” Kucinskas said. “Driving symbolizes the opposite: freedom in the public sphere.”

Furthermore, even some women endorse the ban as a way of differentiating the Kingdom from more liberal nations and possibly even of staving off Western influence. According to a 2007 Gallup poll, only 66 percent of Saudi women and 55 percent of Saudi men said women should be allowed to drive a car by themselves, far fewer than the numbers who said women should be able to work outside the home (82 and 75 percent, respectively). As the Washington Post reported in 2006:

Faiza al-Obaidi, a biology professor, says she thinks the attempts at Western-style female emancipation are part of a religious war being waged by the United States, "an intellectual rather than physical colonization." Sitting at the food court at the Basateen Mall in the coastal city of Jiddah one weekend, lifting her veil to take bites from a tuna sandwich, she said the West was targeting women, the core of society, as a means of eventually controlling the whole country. "They fear Islam, and we are the world's foremost Islamic nation," she said.”

In response to the pro-driving campaigners, one woman even started a counter-movement called “My Guardian Knows What’s Best for Me,” as the New York Times reported:

Within two months, they had collected more than 5,400 signatures on a petition “rejecting the ignorant requests of those inciting liberty” and demanding “punishments for those who call for equality between men and women, mingling between men and women in mixed environments, and other unacceptable behaviors.”

Part of the reason the ban has proven so hard to overturn is that it’s so deeply rooted in not only religion but in the country’s uniqueness.

“The public separation of men and women is a particular element of Saudi national identity,” Kucinskas said, “and is seen by Saudis as a trademark of why their particular society is superior to both Western countries and other predominantly Muslim nations.”

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Olga Khazan is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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