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Sexist Culture Still Bars Women from Driving in Saudi ArabiaAnna O'Leary, Salem-News.com Political Commentator
International Women’s Day (March 8th) sees women in the desert kingdom of Saudi Arabia with little to celebrate.
(DUBLIN) - A strong system of customs and laws in Saudi Arabia keep women heavily reliant on men for their basic day-to-day survival. A song satirizing Saudi Arabia’s driving ban for women, ‘No Woman, No Drive’, has the desert kingdom rocking with over 11 million views at last count. Dozens of Saudi women’s rights activists have been in trouble for defying the driving ban by staging "protest drives".
An old Saudi proverb says, ‘a girl possesses nothing but a veil and a tomb’. In the past women have had a grim acceptance of their lot, but old ways are quietly being questioned for nowhere in the Koran does it say women cannot drive or lead a normal life.
Khadijah, the first wife of Prophet Mohammed was a successful trader, but twenty-first century Saudi women must ask permission from their male guardians to work and must answer to them.
Saudi women are mysterious, sequestered creatures in a society that has perverse attitudes towards women and sex. Women are somewhat powerless and their status, in this traditional society, is dreadful.
Wrapped from head to toe in a swaddle of black silk they are formless. The wretched women suffocate through black face-veils that hide their identities in scorching desert temperatures. A husband has unqualified right to divorce a wife, a privilege not accorded her, and he gets child custody. Socially their lives barely intersect. Men and women attend separate social functions.
Saudi women’s belief in man’s superiority is ingrained. A woman is supposed to walk a few paces behind her husband. She lives with the constant threat that he might take another wife. Husband sharing is ugly, and someone’s dreams are shattered when a new wife enters the marriage.
Polygamy constitutes a national embarrassment for a country that is supposed to be developed and progressive. Children of polygamous homes are conditioned to be cunning to survive such a charade, and women are starting to question the system.
Romance has little to do with marriage, which is a contract between families. Girls marry their first cousins or even a man of their father’s age. In marriage they face a nightmare of constant pregnancy.
They are prohibited from driving a car and even struggle to walk unaccompanied on the street. They are unable to make any important decision without the consent of a male relative. Gradually women are being allowed to work outside the home, where great effort is made in the workplace to keep the genders separate.
Adulterous women are stoned to death after being dragged kicking and shrieking into a public square. They meet a barbaric punishment at the hands of their male relatives for real or imagined sexual misconduct. Adulterous Saudi men go unpunished, because in the desert kingdom it is always the women who are to blame. There is widespread belief that if a man and woman are left alone in a room together they will have sex.
When women disappear, families are not held accountable. Women are not registered to begin with, so nobody misses them. Wife-battering, like honor killing, gets little recognition. No refuges exist for such women.
With no husband, and all male members of my family living in Ireland, I found myself in breach of the law on an almost daily basis when I lived in the desert kingdom. All women in Saudi Arabia should be accompanied outside their homes by their fathers, brothers or husbands. To be accompanied by a man other than a family member is illegal.
The ban on women driving applies to all of us. The exceptions are the American run oil towns of Aramco in Dhahran and Abkaik. There, women take jobs and drive cars within compounds so large they are like towns.
In all other parts of the kingdom the Arabian culture is dominant. Even Shaika, the late Sheikh Salem Bin Laden’s ex wife, can’t drive a car in Saudi, but he taught her to fly an aircraft. There is no ban on women flying an aircraft in the kingdom. As the royal’s treat their country’s exchequer as their personal piggy bank, there is little anyone can do to curb their spendthrift ways.
People disappear in the middle of the night. Many end up being imprisoned for years without trial. Many would like to oppose their dictatorial squandering ways, but a revolution in Saudi Arabia could lead to disruption or stoppage of its oil production.
Foreign powers protect the Al Saud. The American trained military or National Guard steps in immediately to crush any protests demanding human rights.
Because of its oil Saudi Arabia has incredible wealth and international influence. Foreign embassies keel over every time the Saudis throw a temper tantrum and are often powerless to defend their citizens. I had firsthand experience with my own Embassy of Ireland and our Minister of Foreign Affairs who just happened to have been a former classmate of mine.
Mostly I played the role of the dumb blonde, but my defiant Irish rebel spirit moved me to take my grievances to the Saudi sharia courts – once against one of the kingdom’s richest sheikhs, and once against the uncle of King Fahd of Saudi Arabia.
The Al Saud runs the country as a family fiefdom. It is the world’s leading dictatorship and women are not likely to be allowed to drive anytime soon. Saudi Arabia's restrictions on women go far, far beyond just driving.
Anna O’Leary - Dublin, Ireland
Anna O’Leary, North Kerry writer, lived in the Middle East for seventeen years. Her fascination with the area has continued unabated. Her poetry, fiction and non-fiction are imbued with a sense of the Middle East.
Her short story was published in ROPES, and launched at Cúirt 2011. As a journalist she has written for Al Jazeera.net. She has appeared on the satellite channel, Press TV, as a Middle East commentator. She won a short story prize at K.I.S.S. (Kerry International Summer School) in 1996. Her poetry is published by Kerry Literary and Cultural Centre.
Anna worked on the Bin Laden family’s private jet; was a guest of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad; and lived in a royal palace in Riyadh. An award winning Interior Designer she executed palace projects. Anna’s first book in progress, Saudi Arabia: Axis of Power, tells of her meeting with Osama Bin Laden.
After Iran’s revolution she moved to Kuwait and to Egypt. In her second book in progress, Iran: Axis of Power , she paints a rich canvas of pre-revolution Iran, and of Egypt caught in the turmoil of Anwar Sadat’s assassination. She was flying the Peace Route for Egypt. In Egypt she met Israel’s one-eyed general, Moshe Dayan. She frequently went horse riding with the late Prince Ali Reza Pahlavi of Iran.
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