Monday, October 08, 2007

Women Behind the (Saudi) Wheel


I was out of town in Dallas two weekends ago, but luckily Amy, my wife, spotted “Saudis Rethink Taboo on Women Behind the Wheel” in the September 28 Times for me. Apparently women may now drive cars in Saudi science fiction, a great leap ahead from women’s driving being an entirely taboo subject:

In a recent episode of Saudi Arabia's most popular television show, broadcast during Ramadan this month, a Saudi man of the future is seen sitting in his house as his daughter pulls into the driveway, her children piled into the back of the car.

''Where have you been?'' the father asks.

''The kids were bored, so I took them to the movies,'' she replies, matter-of-factly, as she gets out of the driver's seat.

The scene may appear mundane, but in Saudi Arabia, where women are forbidden to drive -- and, by the way, where there are no movie theaters, either -- the skit portends something of a revolution. From a taboo about which there could be no open discussion, a woman's right to drive is becoming a topic of growing and lively debate in Saudi Arabia.

Coming after other recent changes -- women may now travel abroad without male accompaniment (though male permission is still required), seek divorce and own their own companies -- the driving discussion is noteworthy. Whether it signals that women will actually be driving soon or merely talking about it openly remains to be seen.

It’s particularly significant that this TV show aired during Ramadan, where TV viewership in the Muslim world skyrockets to levels that the U.S. sees only during the Super Bowl.

Hassan Fattah’s article goes on to tie the increased discussion of women’s driving to the squeeze on the kingdom’s middle class; as women are forced out into the workplace and become economic actors, they also gain a say in what happens to their income.

This puts women’s role in Saudi society somewhere in the American 1870s—economic instability forces households to seek outside income via women. The 19th Amendment is still decades away, but hopefully it is as inevitable in Saudi Arabia as it was in the U.S.

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