Saudi Arabia’s Driving Women and the Threat of Civil Society

Pliny the Younger, a Roman governor of a province in modern Turkey, once witnessed a large fire in the city of Nicomedia (modern Izmit), and wrote to the emperor Trajan requesting permission to form a company of firemen, noting that he would keep it small  and carefully overseen. Trajan, however, was uninterested, replying (as recounted by the historian Edward Luttwak):

We must remember that it is societies like these which have been responsible for the political disturbances in your province. If people assemble for a common purpose, whatever name we give them and for whatever reason, they soon turn into a political gathering. It is a better policy to provide [firefighting] equipment and to instruct property owners to make use of it.

Trajan successfully ruled over many parts of the modern Middle East, including virtually all of the Mediterranean states and much of Iraq. The region’s modern tyrants share their ancient predecessor’s philosophy towards civil society organizations: they are a potential source of trouble, whatever their purpose. Nobody exemplifies this better than the House of Saud, who bar all forms of political organizations and insist that the rare low-level elections they have be conducted in a “nonpartisan” fashion. Civil society–that is, all voluntary, nongovernmental, noneconomic associations of individuals, ranging from sports leagues to activist groups to knitting circles–is woefully underdeveloped in Saudi Arabia, and this is an outcome of deliberate government policy.

It is in this context that we must examine tomorrow’s protest, in which women all over the country who are trained drivers–that is, women who possess foreign drivers’ licenses–will deliberately violate the de facto Saudi ban on women driving. This has long been considered one of the greatest excesses of Saudi rule. Saudi women, despite the best efforts of the government and the ulemas, have come to play larger and larger roles in Saudi society, with many taking on jobs. Even those who do not have jobs must go places from time to time. Because they cannot drive, Saudi women will hire drivers at a cost of hundreds of dollars each month to keep themselves from being trapped in the house. Even then, sometimes they must walk, and sometimes there are no male relatives available to come pick them up.

This is what happened to Manal al-Sharif, a 31-year old mother and computer security consultant. On her long walk home, she endured the humiliation that so many women in the Arab world have come to know–street harassment. Western women, women without guardians, or women who dress differently are seen as targets for sexually frustrated–or just boorish–men, and must endure lewd remarks, propositions, and gropings. This experience drove al-Sharif to protest, creating a video of herself driving a car. Other Saudi women followed suit. Al-Sharif was quickly arrested, released, and then rearrested, charged with driving and with “rallying public opinion,” which, as mentioned, is outlawed in the civil society-phobic kingdom. Still, there are plans for mass disobedience tomorrow, June 17. The Saudis managed to suppress earlier Arab Spring-related protests in the Shia east with frightening effectiveness–the few people that attempted to protest found streets blocked by police. The case has been similar following their intervention in Bahrain. Tomorrow will be different–the women are not apparently planning to all gather in one area, so the usual tactics by the police will not work. It is likely that the police and other security forces will set up checkpoints, but the women are likely aware of that and prepared to pay fines.

The protests have provoked a conservative backlash, with some reportedly calling for the women who defy the driving ban to be beaten. The religious police (mutawween), more than the regular police, will be a danger to the women. They have a very negative reputation in many sectors of Saudi society as semi-literate thugs fond of administering impromptu beatings, and they have been heavy-handed in their repressions of women before–most famously, they prevented girls from exiting a burning school near Mecca, with many deaths resulting. Women who participated in the last major women’s driving protest–two decades ago–faced heavy official harassment and were fired from their jobs. It is quite possible that the protest will fizzle. Even if many women participate, it may not be a step forward–there are certainly some women who will join who are not experienced drivers, so a wave of accidents could result, embarrassing the movement.

A Saudi political cartoon expresses fears of women being allowed to drive. (Image via Wired)

The real problem for the Saudis is their lack of civil society. These organizations can function as a cushion between the government and the people, because they allow the people to communicate their grievances in an orderly fashion and provide the government with a clear point of contact for opposition movements. Bad policies can be corrected, or even be prevented. Radicals can be pulled back into the mainstream. Frustrations can be vented. The alternative is political chaos–precisely what you see in Saudi Arabia. Opposition forces are disorganized and uncoordinated, and frequently can only operate safely overseas. Other opposition forces become more radical. Hardly a week goes by that the Saudi police don’t break up another terrorist cell. While many have greeted the Arab Spring in places like Egypt with joy, an uprising in Saudi is something to fear, even if we ignore the massive impact such an event would have on world oil markets. The princes would likely remain in charge via massacres and bribery, but if they began to fall, very radical forces could be unleashed. The ban on Saudi women drivers is rooted in the grand compromise that underpins the rule of the House of Saud–the princes get the state, and the Wahhabis get the schools. Saudi Arabia has a radicalism problem–as demonstrated by the terror plots and the large numbers of Saudis that have shown up in jihadi groups all around the world for decades. There can be no doubting that these forces–with their strong representation in key nodes of sub-royal power like the National Guard–would be the kingmakers in a “post-Saudi” Arabia, and they would likely try to turn the Kingdom into a kind of Sunni Iran.

Civil society development would make these radicals more organized, yes, but it would also make them more accountable. Consider the many iterations of the Muslim Brotherhood around the Arab world. The organization’s original ideology, taken from founders Hassan al-Banna and Sayyed Qutb, is perfectly compatible with radicalism and with some measure of violence. It emerged as a powerful center of opposition politics in places like Syria, Jordan, and Egypt, prompting various levels of state response. Syria has been quite oppressive, infamously shelling a Brotherhood stronghold, the city of Hama, in 1982. Egypt has gone back and forth, with initial periods of intense repression (like the imprisonment and execution of Qutb under Nasser) followed by a gradually increasing tolerance, with the Brotherhood becoming a large, politically unwieldy organization. Jordan, meanwhile, tolerated the Brotherhood, where it has become a major factor in Jordanian politics. The Jordanian and Egyptian Brotherhoods are moderate, the Syrian Brotherhood radical.

I conducted an examination a few months ago of the progress of the Arab Spring, and hypothesized that civil society and the level of violence in the revolts were linked. I made the following table of countries that have experienced significant legal changes or unrest as a result of the movements:

“Violence” here refers to all violence–both that of the people and that of the state. Of course, it’s all highly unscientific–I did not use systematic estimates of deaths or casualties to divide levels of violence, and I could not find a good measure of civil society (indexes like CIVICUS only cover part of the region). I go back and forth on whether Bahrain should be high or low civil society, but I probably should have made it high. Yemen, of course, would now be in the “High Violence” class, but that would only make the relationship more obvious–states with more developed civil society experienced less violence, and they have been more successful at actually changing the political arena.

The message, then, for Saudi Arabia’s women protestors–besides good luck–is that they will have a better chance at earning more rights for themselves if they use the connections they make tomorrow, and that they’ve made already, to organize.

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2 Comments

Filed under Arab World, Saudi Arabia

2 responses to “Saudi Arabia’s Driving Women and the Threat of Civil Society

  1. Pingback: The Shifting Sands of Arab Politics | John Allen Gay's Middle East Blog

  2. Pingback: The Shifting Sands of Arab Politics | Government In The Lab

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