Friday, June 3, 2011

Restricting Women’s Movement: the Saudi Ban on Women Driving

With the recent media mention of the Saudi women’s campaign to overturn the ban on women driving, I thought it would be appropriate to talk about how this issue relates to more general restrictions of women’s movement. I want to focus specifically on Muslim women because that has been my personal experience, and so I look at restrictive laws in Muslim-majority countries, as well as general trends within the Muslim diaspora (specifically in the United States). Just as a disclaimer, I am using the category “Muslim” with hesitation because 1) I realize that Islam itself is not necessarily to blame for these restrictions; 2) even in Muslim-majority countries, there are certainly non-Muslims that have similar experiences, and 3) these experiences may be common in other cultures/religions as well. Nevertheless, I still feel that it is a relevant category to use with regards to what I’ll be discussing.

As the article I linked to above mentions, the ban on women driving “is this general rule that women can have no choice when it comes to what they do and where they go.” It seems like a bit of a contradiction, since Saudi women are allowed to work and receive an education, and while the right to an education and a career are surely positive signs of Saudi women’s status, the driving ban is nevertheless extremely insulting and severely limits women’s rights.

The requirement that women must have someone else drive them places can also be compared to situations in other countries where women’s movement is restricted, impeding their ability to go where they please, when they wish to. For example, Yemeni law prohibits wives from leaving the home without their husbands’ consent, in Syria husbands can prohibit their wives from leaving the country by filing a request with the Ministry of Interior, and in Qatar women need male permission to obtain a driver’s license.[1] Though it’s probably not fair to give the most extreme example; just to show the range of these restrictions, women under Taliban rule in Afghanistan (1996-2001) were not permitted to go to school, work, or even leave the house without a male relative. Even when they did leave the house, they were required to be covered head-to-toe in a burqa, which essentially secluded them from society even when they were in public.

There are also examples (which may arguably be less extreme, depending on the situation), of Muslim women’s restrictions in the US, which is significant in that there are not necessarily legal restrictions, but cultural norms that are adhered to. I certainly can’t generalize for all Muslim families living in the US, but from my own personal experience and my friends’ experiences, I can say that many of us have faced earlier curfews (as opposed to our brother’s and male cousins), and were more questioned about where we were going and who we would be with. Furthermore, there was often a threat of more restrictions if we didn’t “behave” (which usually meant having a boyfriend) we would have to stay home for college, or quit our jobs.

While all cases are various degrees of restricting women’s movement, they still have in common the same underlying principle: women have less freedom to move about, while men are able to move about as they please. These are classic examples of patriarchy (here I’m going with the definition of men controlling the family): men are the ones who can grant women in the family permission to leave the house, or obtain a driver’s license, or leave the country. Men don’t need permission to do these things. And (at least in the US, because I’ve seen it myself), there’s this unwritten expectation that boys can break their parents’ rules and they won’t tell on each other, but they will more than likely tell on girls—even if it is just a male friend’s sister.

The big question is: why? Why is women’s movement so restricted in so many different circumstances? My best guess is that it’s the fear of what women will do when they have freedom, that they might somehow “shame” the family (this could easily turn into a discussion about “honor” killings). From what I have seen and heard, this often (but certainly not always) boils down to having a boyfriend, or seeing some man that a woman is not married to. But, I’m sure there are other arguments and am open to hearing ideas.

What bothers me most about all these restrictions is that adult women are being treated like children…why do adult women need permission from anybody in their family to do anything?? Granted, with some of the examples I mentioned I was referring to minors, but with these cases it is still unfair that boys of the same age don’t have the same rules.

While I focus primarily on Muslim families and Muslim-majority countries, I want to be clear that I do not at all think that Islam is the root of the problem here—I believe that Islam in its true form is favorable to women’s rights and has too often been misused to justify denying women their rights. At the same time, I don’t support the idea that we have to be so careful in the way that we talk about Muslim women that we turn a blind eye to problems that really do exist. As I mentioned earlier, I hesitate to use the category “Muslim” for various reasons, but at the same time it can’t be ignored that in Muslim-majority countries and in Muslim families, women’s rights are limited. I think this really just goes to show that there is still much work to be done regarding Muslim women’s rights, and that this can be achieved from within an Islamic framework.

[1] I pulled these facts from Joni Seager’s “The Penguin Atlas of Women in the World,” which is really useful is highlighting women’s status concerning different issues all around the world. Some of these facts may be a bit outdated (some from 2000), but for the most part they are still pretty relevant.