For the last five years, I have had the honor and pleasure of giving presentations on Saudi women at a private girls school in my town in the U.S. I speak to the top students in the junior class, known as the 'Junior Scholars'. During their junior year, they follow a special program to expand their international horizons. Each year I try to focus on something different. In 2010, I used video clips of Princess Loulwa giving her acceptance speech at Mount Holyoke for her honorary doctorate, and of her interview with Robin Roberts on the Today Show.
2011 was a year to look at social issues square in the face, so we focused on Saudi women driving. I had the students read this blog for a week. We opened with a discussion about their reactions to the news stories here. Then we talked about how they would feel if they were suddenly forbidden to drive. These girls are just at the age when they are getting their licenses, around 16-17 years old. Of course, they would not be happy, and we concluded that independent mobility is a core element of their lifestyle.
Then we took it a step further. The group broke up into groups of six girls each, and each girl played the role of a different member of Saudi society who has a view and a serious interest in this issue. These were, a female college graduate who studied in the states, a worried mother, the ruler, a conservative religious scholar, a western-educated car dealer, and a traffic cop. After I described each person's position on the issue to the group, and they had a chance to study their own roles, we gave them ten minutes to discuss the issue among themselves, and to come up with a solution to the problem. I enjoyed listening to the girls playing their various roles, and was delighted to find how respectful they were of each others' opinions.
The results? Of the four groups, two came up with an agreement to allow women to drive. One of these did it with the stipulation that a female driver would have to get permission from a guardian to get a license. (This is the same in the U.S. for drivers under 18 years old). The other two groups could not agree on women driving at the moment. One of those groups would instead enact better public transportation. The other one would also do that, but would set up much improved driving schools and raise the awareness of better behavior on the roads so that eventually it would be suitable for women to drive.
Lessons learned? That this issue is really tough. I was surprised that the girls playing the 'ruler' didn't all step in and force the issue. When I asked them about it, they said that the ruler was deeply concerned about maintaining society's unity and tradition. Sounds familiar, doesn't it?
After our role playing exercise, the girls were clearly more engaged in the issue, and asked a lot of excellent questions, providing good discussion for the end of the class. We all learned from this experience, and I think the girls can now see how social issues like this can't be solved just with a snap of western judgement.