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Driving Toward Change

It took a prince to end Saudi Arabia's ban on female drivers. Monarch-led feminism hasn't worked in the past. But this time might be different.

Amer Hilabi/AFP/Getty Images

Sheikh Salih Luhaidan, the man who declared driving dangerous for women’s reproductive system, was born in the agricultural town of Qassim in Saudi Arabia. Located almost exactly in the middle of the peninsula that makes up most of Saudi Arabia, Qassim is redolent with the palms that produce dates consumed all over the country and the world. It is also where the Salafist movement, the most conservative flavor of Wahabism, that already ascetic Saudi version of Islam, is centered. In 1971, Luhaidan was appointed to the Kibarul Ulama, the Saudi Council of Senior Scholars, and until 2009 he was the Chief of the Supreme Judicial Council in Riyadh, one of the most powerful clerical bodies in the Muslim world.

Women have never driven cars on the streets of Qassim; but starting June 24, 2018, they will have the right to do so there and anywhere else in the Kingdom. Sheikh Luhaidan himself has certainly tried to prevent this. In 2011, when a Twitter campaign attacking the Kingdom’s ban on women driving collected nearly 11,000 signatures, he was a ferocious opponent. “If a woman drives a car, not out of pure necessity, that could have negative physiological impacts,” he declared in a fatwa (a religious edict), going on to assert that “functional and physiological medical studies show that it automatically affects the ovaries and pushes the pelvis upwards.” Those words disseminated among Muslims in Saudi Arabia and all over the world; so did his conclusion: “those who regularly drive have children with clinical problems of varying degrees.”

Sheikh Luhuidan has no medical training. To the world beyond the borders of the kingdom his driving edict appears ludicrous, a bumbling attempt to provide a false physiological basis to a ban imposed by humans. Within Saudi Arabia’s powerful clerical establishment, however, his perspective has prevailed. In 2016 Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz Bin Abdullah Al Sheikh, the country’s most senior cleric, echoed the same line in his own edict, saying that driving “is a dangerous matter that exposes women to evil.” The clerics of Saudi Arabia, and the millions who assiduously relied on them for religious guidance, thought that women should never be permitted to get behind the wheel.

And yet, starting this past Sunday, Saudi women were able to do just that. In September of last year, Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, the maverick monarch who has promised to modernize his austere kingdom, announced that the driving ban would be lifted in June 2018. In the days before June 24, 2018, the date selected for the momentous move, thousands of Saudi women applied for driver’s licenses, which Saudi authorities had begun issuing earlier on in the month. Both Saudi women, and the prince himself, have decided to test a historical pattern.

Optics are important to countries, and Muslim women—their relative visibility and invisibility—have long been a realm of strategic wrangling, with meanings and symbols of domination attached to either.  In the colonial era, monarchs were also central to campaigns that touted “modernization.” In 1928, Queen Soraya, the wife of Afghan King Amanullah Khan, inaugurated a girl’s school and a hospital for women.  Then at a Council meeting, she shocked the world and those present by removing her hijab and becoming the first Muslim Queen to appear unveiled in public. Her example, the Afghan royalty hoped, would influence other Afghan women.

Next door in Iran, the Shah took a rougher route. In 1936, he passed the “Kashf-e-Hijab” decree, banning certain sorts of veils for all Iranian women. Most Iranian women were used to veiling at the time and did not welcome the decree, particularly since violence was sometimes used to force women in public to remove their veils. To avoid confrontations, many just stayed home. Both the Afghan and Iranian kings at the time enjoyed the support of Western governments.

And in both cases it was the clerics who won eventually, and the monarchs were overthrown. Whatever the kings had done, the clerics wanted to reverse. If the visibility of women had been a sign of modernity brought on by monarchs who colluded with the British and the Americans, forcing the women to veil was a reversal—a retaking of power that was authentic, and a return to the days when the homeland was untouched by foreign powers.

Driving is not veiling, nor is anyone being forced to do it. It is, however, a visible alteration of the face Saudi Arabia presents to itself and to the world. In supporting the reversal of the driving ban, Prince Salman is treading through tricky territory, boldly overruling the clerics accustomed to monopolizing the realm of women’s conduct and defining what is permissible. The monarchs of old who tried to “modernize” their kingdoms were overthrown in part over their perceived Western connections. Indeed, the clever packaging of everything involving women’s empowerment as part of “Western feminism” and hence impermissible has been a winning formula in nearly every Muslim country, where resistance to the West has been, in the simplistic politics of Islamists, painted as cultural authenticity.

The challenge for Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, the modernizing monarch of the contemporary Muslim moment, is to push through reforms like female drivers without seeming to capitulate to Western culture. So while it may seem strange that the end of the driving ban on driving has coincided with the arrests of Saudi feminists most involved with protesting the ban, the timing seems politically savvy  given the historical context. Last month at least twelve prominent activists who have campaigned against the driving ban were arrested; three of them remain in custody. Then, just as the first driver’s licenses were being handed out to some Saudi women, two others, including writer Nouf Abdelaziz, were also arrested. Cracking down on feminists while implementing the most feminist reform of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in the post-colonial era could be the Prince’s way of deflecting the ready critiques of thwarted clerics eager to label the rising ruler a Western stooge. Explanations, of course, are not excuses: the cruel reality in 2018 Saudi society is that some women are moving forward at the expense of innocent others.

The king- and queen-endorsed feminism of early-twentieth century Iran and Afghanistan never trickled down to bring lasting change for women in those countries. Only elite women adopted the unveiled and mixed-gender socializing that the kings, queens, and courtiers were trying to popularize. Not long after, the monarchies fell, with the changes evaporating into the ether.

The rapidly reforming Saudi Arabia of old does not fit directly into the mold of those past historical mistakes. Saudi feminists have been campaigning for a lifting of the ban since 1990, confirming that there is plenty of grassroots support for the move. In other Muslim countries, feminist initiatives have failed precisely because clerics like Sheikh Luhaidan and the establishment behind them have thwarted progress, continuing to portray female disempowerment as cultural and religious authenticity. In this sense, the prince’s decision to side with the grassroots driving movement may represent a new era.