A few days ago a controversy arose on Twitter over an article published by Your Middle East arguing that Saudi women were “not quite ready” for the right to drive. A number of bloggers, activists, and journalists quickly condemned the piece as sexist and racist.
Just hours after the article’s publication, Your Middle East editors removed it from the site. The magazine also issued a statement reassuring readers that despite the article’s message, Your Middle East was still working to promote “equal rights for all citizens” in the MENA region.
The article’s author was 21-year-old UK national Phillip Harrison, a young man who has visited Lebanon and Egypt, but has never actually been to Saudi Arabia. It was Harrison’s first ever publication.
In his own defense, Harrison insisted that his argument that Saudi women were not ready to drive was not sexist and that he merely “got his opinion from KSA people.” Harrison responded to his critics on Twitter by asserting that their criticism of his article was only “proving his point more and more” and “nobody had any valid arguments.”
Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy with some of the world’s tightest restrictions on freedom of speech and expression. A lack of transparency mixed with government manipulation of information makes it difficult even for Saudi nationals to truly understand what is actually taking place inside the country. As such, the complexities within Saudi Arabia are essentially impossible to understand from the outside.
Since the Kingdom’s establishment, many of those critical of the regime and the Saudi system have been imprisoned, tortured, exiled, and in some cases even killed.
To make things even more complicated, Saudi Arabia is among the few countries in the world where “religion” (or the government’s version of it) controls nearly every aspect of public life. Though a number of Islamic schools of thought exist; the interpretation adopted by the Saudi government and forced upon the population is one of the least tolerant.
Amid these complexities, it should be no surprise that the article triggered disgust from many Saudi women who have been working to lift the Kingdom’s ban on women drivers. While many are accustomed to hearing such arguments from the Saudi government’s clerics and news agencies, it was a shock to find similar claims coming from a male British national (who has never been to Saudi Arabia) on a site that typically stood for equal rights in the region.
Harrison’s makes two main points in his article. He begins by arguing that, with one of the highest car accident death tolls in the world, Saudi Arabia’s roads are just too dangerous for women drivers.
Of course, because of the current ban, none of these drivers are women. Logically speaking, the people who make the road a dangerous place should be stripped of their right to drive, not the ones who do not even factor into this frightening statistic.
Research done around the world has consistently shown that women are significantly less likely to get into fatal accidents than men, and, ultimately, are safer drivers.
By grounding the driving ban in claims that the roads are too dangerous for women, Harrison ultimately implies that women are incapable of making decisions about their safety on their own. It is a woman’s right to make decisions regarding her own life and to discern whether or not something is too dangerous for her.
While he claims to have “got[ten] his opinions from Saudi women,” Harrison obviously only spoke with women who had no desire to drive. Lifting the ban on women drivers does not mean all women would suddenly be forced to take to the road. All it would do is make the option available for those who wish to exercise their right.
A significant number of Saudi women already have driver’s licenses from other countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council and around the world. Every day, plenty of new drivers take to Saudi Arabia’s streets. Why not allow some of them to be women? Statistically speaking it would be much safer.
As his second argument (which he describes as more “complicated’), Harrison contends that due to Saudi women’s social “status,” they cannot be expected to “interact with men” if problems arise on the road. He says:
If a lady crashes into a man’s car is she going to happily exchange insurance information with him? Is she going to go to the police station with all of the male police officers? Is she in the social environment to be able to hold her own and say it wasn’t her fault?Harrison would have been able to easily answer these ridiculous questions if he had taken one simple trip to the country.
As part of living in a male-dominated society, women in Saudi Arabia often have to interact with men. From small service positions all the way to the very top of the corporate ladder, men still dominate the majority of occupations in Saudi Arabia.
Though certain aspects of Saudi society are segregated by gender, many are not, and interactions between men and women are rather common. Women work alongside men and “hold their own” in a number of companies, banks, schools, hospitals, businesses, and other work environments.
Harrison ends his article by insisting that small steps must be taken before women will be able to drive, and urging Saudi society to make these change. Based on Harrison’s logic, Rosa Parks should have just stayed in the back of the bus, and African-Americans should have accepted their fate as second-class citizens until white America was ready to give them what was rightfully theirs. Such a strategy would obviously have been a blow to civil rights in the United States. It is equally destructive in the case of Saudi Arabia.
*Bayan Perazzo is editor of Muftah’s Yemen and Gulf States pages. You can follow her on Twitter @BintBattuta87