Westerners should be wary of trying to impose their version of feminism on Saudi women. It's not always welcome.
If you read any western coverage of the recent protest of Saudi Arabia's female driving ban, you probably thought, "finally, the kingdom is waking up". But the problem is, that's not what many Saudis think, including Saudi women.
The Saudi economic newspaper El-Iqtisadiah ran a front-page news story suggesting that women's driving is just a luxury rather than a necessity and that protesters against the ban seek to undermine the kingdom's stability and create sedition.
That wasn't just propaganda. I conducted a survey of my former Saudi female students at Al-Lith College for Girls (at Um al-Qura University, Mecca). They helped me distribute a large-scale questionnaire to their colleagues from different departments of the college and to their female relatives and friends. It wasn't exactly scientific, but their responses are worth considering. I offered them anonymity in their answers, but even so, some wanted to be recognized.
To my surprise, 134 (out of 170) respondents said female driving is not a necessity and that it opens the door for sexual harassment and encourages women to not wear the niqab under the pretext that they cannot see the road when driving. Some also fear that it gives husbands a chance to betray and agree with the assertion that it creates sedition in society.
Mashaal El-Maliki, a housewife:
Female driving will destroy family life because it will give husbands a chance to know other women who (as drivers) will be free and without guardians.Bedoor Elmaliki, a student:
In my point of view, female driving is not a necessity because in the country of the two holy mosques every woman is like a queen. There is (someone) who cares about her; and a woman needs nothing as long as there is a man who loves her and meets her needs; as for the current campaigns calling for women's driving, they are not reasonable. Female driving is a matter of fun and amusement, let us be reasonable and thank God so much for the welfare we live in.Maqbula El-Malawi, a student:
Honestly, I don't like women to drive. This will create sedition … I agree that there are already different kinds of sedition we see every day, but the right place for a woman is her house; this will really save her from what is happening in the outside world.A Saudi mother:
If they allow women to drive, there will be many negative effects on the whole society (eg, sexual harassment). Furthermore, there will be many things that don't comply with our Islamic principles. This will open the door for women to imitate men in everything, and who knows … there would be calls for banning niqab. This way a woman will lose her femininity; and if a woman goes out without a guardian, she may lose her honor.Banaader Elmaliki, a 4th year mathematics student:
[The driving movement is] just a crazy imitation of America, and doesn't mean more liberation for women. It rather means liquidation of the society and inferiority of its moral values. The biggest evidence on this is the liquidation of American society; we don't want this in our kingdom.The results of my informal survey were almost identical to those of a questionnaire my former Saudi students conducted. They found 3,209 out of 3,710 Saudi women opposed changing the driving laws, for the same aforementioned reasons.
Even women who supported driving (about 501) stressed that their support has conditions. Crucially, they stipulated that there must be laws that deter men against sexual harassment and that allow women to drive safely in lanes of their own.
This stresses that the continuous attempts from the west to impose its values elsewhere are pointless. Western feminism is not only unlikely to take hold in countries like Saudi Arabia, it is not what many women in the kingdom want. Consider what Amany Abdulfadl, member of the Egyptian Centre for Monitoring Women's Priorities, said in a 2007 piece in Al-Ahram Weekly: the west's ''definition of equality cannot work in our Arab world because neither will our women find jungles to cut wood in, nor our men ever have breasts to feed babies.''
People in Saudi Arabia have their own moral views and needs. What works in other societies may not fit in Saudi, and the reverse. In short, instead of launching campaigns to change the driving laws in the kingdom, the west should first ask Saudi women if they really want this or not, and western countries should accept the result, even if it's not to their liking.