Sunday, February 15, 2015

What is the relation between Saudi women driving and rape?!

This opinion piece appeared in the Saudi English language daily, The Saudi Gazette on February 15, 2015. The writer is Faisal J. Abbas, Editor in Chief of al-Arabiyah English. You can link to the story here, or read it below.

What is the relation between Saudi women driving and rape?!

Faisal J. Abbas

Media outlets should always remember that they have a responsibility to inform the public and as such must always strive to adhere to the highest possible standards of professionalism and journalistic ethics.

Many might find it strange that one has to repeat what is - without doubt - the very soul and essential cornerstone of our profession.

However, when reputable Arab television channels are being used as a platform for the ideas of people like Saudi historian Saleh Al-Sadoon, one wonders whether our job is to inform, stimulate minds and raise questions or simply to serve as meaningless, yet somewhat entertaining, optical chewing gum for the masses.

If you haven’t heard yet, Mr. Sadoon recently raised a few eyebrows when he appeared on Rotana Khalijia TV and defended Saudi Arabia’s much-disputed ban on women driving by saying that it was meant to protect women from rape in case their cars break down.

When the show’s female presenter pointed out that women drive in the US, Europe and the Arab world, he replied: “They don’t care if they are raped on the roadside, but we do.”

Mr. Sadoon also added that he was concerned by the idea that some women may be raped by their male chauffeurs, but proposed a solution to that potential problem. “The solution is to bring in female foreign chauffeurs to drive our wives,” he suggested, at which point the presenter couldn’t prevent herself from laughing.

Existing preposterous views

Of course, nobody is suggesting that this Saudi historian should not have the right to say what he wishes; clearly, such preposterous views do exist among ultra-conservatives in the Kingdom and there is no point in hiding or being shy about this fact.

However, we can’t keep throwing stones at Western media for exclusively giving airtime and column inches to radical Muslims - given that we believe Islam shouldn’t be solely represented by the likes of hate cleric Abu Hamza just because a newspaper wants to sell more copies - only for us to make the same mistake in our own backyard.

Yes, the Rotana Khalijia TV presenter had every right to laugh, as Mr. Sadoon’s opinion certainly can’t be taken seriously. However, it is no longer a laughing matter when tens of newspapers and TV channels around the world are now reporting this story, which may lead to more misunderstanding of our religion, culture and conflicting views within Saudi society.

No counterargument

My issue with the whole matter is that there was no counterargument. Yes, the TV host did put Mr. Sadoon under the spotlight and appeared to be ridiculing him on air, but there should have been another historian, female Shoura Council member, advocate or any other party who could have demonstrated that not all Saudis, Arabs or Muslims share such views.

For the record, this same TV channel did a brilliant job two years ago when they brought on a medical doctor to challenge a Saudi cleric who infamously said that driving can damage women’s ovaries.

Obviously, it didn’t take much for the doctor to win the argument. However, as one would expect, very little has been reported about this discussion while clerics with radical points of view continue to generate headlines globally.

As for the ban on women driving, like the issue with cinema in Saudi Arabia, I don’t think a clear explanation exists as to why there is a de facto, unjustified ban on both. However, the debate continues within society, local media, government and the Shoura Council.

Now, you may wonder what drives a supposedly educated historian or a member of the clergy to make outrageous presuppositions against women driving. The answer lies in Abdulrahman Al-Rashed’s must-read Al-Arabiya column “Poor education, the mother of all problems!"

Faisal J. Abbas is the Editor-in-Chief of Al-Arabiya English. Follow him on Twitter: @FaisalJAbbas