as a women in Saudi Arabia can be dangerous. The country's dreaded moral
police are everywhere, sometimes aided by men sympathetic to their
oppressive cause. When 32-year-old Manal al-Sharif posted a video
to YouTube of her driving, she was arrested and spent a week in prison.
She was not the first. In 1990, a group of women drove around Riyadh to
protest the ban. Though their act did not destroy the moral fabric of
Saudi society, it did incur harsh punishment; all who had participated
were banned from traveling or working for years.
Arabia changed since then? Women are still forbidden from voting (not
that voting does much) and require permission from a male "guardian" to
work or take a job. The underlying purpose of the ban -- to restrict
women's autonomy and make them utterly reliant on men -- still exists in
Saudi Arabia, as in much of the world. But the rest of the world has
changed more quickly than has Saudi Arabia over the past two decades,
and the conservative state is finding that its harsh gender restrictions
are increasingly a pretext. Many of the women driving today are
professionals; al-Sharif is an information technology consultant. And
though the number of women driving may be modest, their potential impact
is not, with social media allowing them to broadcast images and videos
of their cruises across the peninsula.
Though the Kingdom has
left its laws restrictive, the realities of the modern world have
required it to informally loosen its culture of gender segregation. Even
a country this rich with oil cannot sustain its economy with half of
the workforce kept home; even an absolute monarchy cannot hold power
without the consent of half of society, especially when the advent of
social media allows Saudi women a small but significant new tool for
organizing. Saudi Arabia has opened women's colleges and even a coed
university, part of its halting attempts to reform the underlying system
of gender inequality, even if not the laws themselves.
"I believe the day will come when women drive," Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz told ABC News
in a 2005 interview. "In time, I believe it will be possible." When
asked why that day was not today, he responded, "I respect my people and
I value their well-being. It is impossible that I would do anything
that is not acceptable to my people." This isn't entirely true -- King
Abdullah has long resisted popular calls for democratization -- though
many of the country's most restrictive laws are rooted in a deference to
the country's hardliners, who have terrified the monarchy since
ultraconservative militants slaughtered worshipers at Mecca in 1979. But
that logic -- appease the religious extremists, punish the liberals and
women -- may not be as compelling to the royal family as it once was.