Camels replaced cars, but in Saudi Arabia, women who once rode these animals ended up getting pushed into the seclusion of their homes. The region in 7th century was somewhat matriarchal. Rich women led caravans at that time and yet today in 2018, it is anything but. Clerics claim that a woman behind a wheel can only make a society promiscuous. The fears that led societies to regulate women’s reproductive rights are no longer valid, with paternity tests and such, but the old fears still define current laws.
Whereas there is no law that barred women in Saudi Arabia from driving, the guardianship laws did not allow that they do and driver’s licenses were just not offered to women because of the cultural subtext, even when women are in their fully cloaked abayas. Now King Salman, hailed as a 31-year-old reformer and progressive leader has decreed an end to women’s ban on driving. In fact, this is a policy push.
Here in Pakistan, we first watch what Saudi Arabia is doing, then replicate the exact thing – the Eid moon is just one example. Therefore the end on women driving there is a signal to end whatever is the equivalent here in Pakistan. Giving women the right to ride a heavy bike perhaps? The woman ban on driving was symbolic of defining women as Saudi Arabia as a relic of honor. When that definition, holy, sacred and heavy is thrust on you, the results are like being buried alive – just like the feticide that some tribes in 7th century practiced. So our clerics too used that argument.
Women in Pakistan are watching carefully. We are saying about time. It is 2018. We are also saying, it must be difficult for the Saudi feminists to have campaigned this hard. Although the structure under a religious monarchy like in Saudi Arabia is that rights are given not campaigned for, the fact of the matter is, someone always has to pay the price for any right. Regardless of the right being thrown out as a bone or put in place as a need to bring genuine economic reform. We are saying, please release the women that campaigned for this right and are still in Saudi jails.
Ironically, while the elite women of Saudi Arabia revved up their luxury cars and drove to McDonald’s to grab a bite, the middle-class women who actually don’t have drivers are the ones who did not celebrate the day the ban was lifted. We are saying real freedom is freedom for all, or it is not freedom, instead, it is called a gift. Gifts are in short supply and only some get them.
We are also saying, now that Saudi women can drive there, they should also get to shed the guardianship of a man to travel, to work, to get a health check-up, to get an education and to even go to the mall. These laws are so anachronistic that opening up this permission must undoubtedly shed doubt on the validity of the other bans. A widow can drive but she is at the mercy of her teenage son that she raised herself? This makes no sense. Laws that are not based on common sense are not laws, but dictates.
As a leader of the Muslim world, we women of Pakistan look to Saudi Arabia to unbind the feet of the women there. That is where the reverberations of actual equality start for the rest of the Muslim world. The country that is last to adopt United Nations SDG goal on equality sadly also sets the bar for other Muslim women world-over, even when they do not practice the Wahabi brand of Islam.
Muslim countries like Pakistan are diverse – religiously and culturally – yet women in all these countries are thrown into the management portfolio of fanatical clerics. Their fate rests on religious committees, usually with one token woman, who decide the fate of millions of middle-class women who have barriers to access of all kinds – mobility, finance, nutrition, health, education, and even the Internet.
We are incredibly grateful to the regime of Saudi Arabia for ending our country’s clerics final excuse to imprison women. These clerics have always used the Saudi model to make women so holy they are herded like animals into one slaughterhouse of morality or another. The regime could, if it wanted, could choose not to do this, and we would be just as stuck as the women of Saudi Arabia. Waiting on a man to drive us to our life. Waiting on a man to be kind. Waiting for a man to be generous. We in Pakistan and the rest of the world know that whereas that actually happens. It is rare.
We are also saying to the women of Saudi Arabia, hitting the road in a car is only the first step to the liberation of the spatial universe; the real challenge is to overcome mental barriers of gender equality. There were several women in Saudi who still did not drive despite the ability and permission, because their internal self-evaluation did not give them permission. We are saying to them, get behind the wheel for us here in Pakistan. We are watching and cheering.