Driving Out Saudi Arabia's Virgins?

"Scientific" report foresees devastating social consequences if the kingdom's ban on women driving is lifted.

A self-described “scientific” report issued by Muslim scholars has determined that within ten years Saudi Arabia will have “no more virgins” if the ban on Saudi women driving is lifted.

While Saudi Arabia remains the only country in the world where women are prohibited from driving a car -- an act punishable by arrest and public whipping -- Saudi women have been engaged in a highly publicized effort to overturn the ban.

Those protests, which began in earnest in May 2011, have taken the form of an online campaign in which Saudi women have posted videos of themselves driving in an attempt to encourage other women to defy the ban.

The video protests have generated sufficient adverse domestic and international reaction, which prompted Saudi King Abdullah to entertain suggestions that the driving ban be reviewed.

To that end, King Abdullah commissioned a report from Saudi professor Kamal Subhi, in conjunction with Muslim scholars from Saudi Arabia’s highest religious council, to assess the impact that lifting the driving ban would have on Saudi society.

Apart from the apocalyptic vision of an extinct virgin populace, the scholarly report also claimed women drivers would “provoke a surge in prostitution, pornography, homosexuality and divorce,” as seen in other Muslim countries that had allowed women the right to drive.

Empirical proof of that latter claim was offered by Professor Subhi when he recounted his own personal experience sitting in a coffee shop in another Arab nation. According to the horrified Subhi, “All the women were looking at me. One made a gesture that made it clear she was available... this is what happens when women are allowed to drive.”

While Subhi failed to explain what particular gesture the woman had made to force him to reach for the smelling salts, his findings nevertheless have found a receptive audience among conservative Saudi royals and clerics who are chafing at the prospect of any more reforms being pushed through by King Abdullah.

While exceedingly modest by Western standards, Abdullah has nevertheless enacted several reforms on behalf of women, which include giving Saudi women the right to vote in the 2015 municipal elections and a promise to appoint women to the King’s advisory body, the all-male Shura Council.

However, as one prominent Saudi journalist noted, “It will be odd that women who enjoy parliamentary immunity as members of the Shura Council are unable to drive their cars or travel without permission.”

Of course, having long borne the brunt of Saudi Arabia’s rigid interpretation of Sharia law, Saudi women are quite accustomed to being treated in a highly illogical, discriminatory and abusive way.

That treatment manifests itself most visibly in segregation laws, strictly enforced by the Kingdom’s religious police, which require women in public to avoid all contact with men while draped in attire that conceals their entire body, save hands and eyes.

In fact, even displaying one’s eyes can be a source of trouble for a woman, as demonstrated recently when Saudi Arabia’s Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (CPVPV) recently announced that it would order women whose eyes seem “tempting” to shield them immediately or face arrest.

Yet, as oppressive as life may be for Saudi women, it should be noted that many women are truly divided about whether the country’s rulers should ease restrictive gender policies, fearful they might have to assume responsibilities they are incapable of undertaking.

As one Saudi woman said, “I see how American women have to run around the city running errands, and I don't want to open that door. As long as women driving are banned, no one will have these expectations for me.”

That viewpoint came to the forefront in a 2009 effort to urge King Abdullah to not give in to local activists and international human rights organizations regarding Saudi Arabia’s guardianship system.

Under current Saudi law, a Saudi woman must have a male “guardian,” be it her father, brother, husband or even son. These guardians are responsible for deciding every woman’s major life decisions, from choosing whom to marry to taking a job to travelling abroad.

Yet, in 2009 a Saudi woman in collaboration with members of the Saudi royal family organized a campaign to strengthen the Saudi guardianship system called “My Guardian Knows What’s Best for Me.”

Still, despite cultural, religious and political obstacles, small steps are being made to lift Saudi women out from beneath the leaden heel of Saudi men.

The most recent example came when Saudi Arabia faced a threatened ban on its participation at the 2012 London Summer Olympic Games for not allowing female athletes to join its all-male contingent, a daunting demand given Saudi Arabia forbids women from participating in sports.

It should be noted, however, that Saudi Arabian reluctance to have girls participate in sports has an interesting justification in Sunni eyes. As one Saudi journalist explained, “Clerics have warned that running and jumping can damage a woman’s hymen and ruin her chances of getting married.”

Nevertheless, the Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee (SAOC) managed to overcome the issue when it announced that a woman could join the Saudi Olympic team, albeit with the caveat that they be living abroad.

As such, Dalma Rushdi Malhas, an 18-year-old equestrienne who won a bronze medal in the 2010 Singapore Youth Olympics, will reportedly be Saudi Arabia’s first Olympic female athlete, a brilliant choice that should pose no problems for the religious folk back home as horseback riders are fully clothed and expose only their hands and faces.

So, now, having won the right to ride a horse in public, all eyes are focused on seeing if Saudi women can take the next natural step and drive a motorized vehicle.

That decision can’t come soon enough for Shaima Jastaniya, a 34-year-old Saudi woman, who was arrested recently for having driven her car in the Saudi city of Jeddah and sentenced to 10 lashes.

However, Shaima, the Rosa Parks of Saudi Arabia, wasn’t driving to draw attention to the driving ban nor trolling for men as Professor Subhi may believe. Instead, she was trying to get to a hospital but couldn’t find a male relative to drive her.

While her case is on appeal, Shaima, according to a friend, “is frightened and very confused.” If it’s any comfort to Shaima, there are millions of other Saudi women who feel the same way.

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