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

The odd restriction is as much cultural as religious.
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.”

The Democracy Report

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. 

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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