Saudi women protesting the ban on driving can point to the very genesis of Islam to defend their right to get behind the wheel: The wives of prophet Muhammad rode camels and horses and moved about independently.
Saudi Arabia is the land of immobile women.
No other nation prohibits women from driving or indeed moving in any capacity without male consent. As of today, Saudi women are protesting the kingdom’s driving ban from behind the wheel of their cars. These women unnerve the state, for while popular opinion is on their side, so, too, is Islam.
When I moved to Saudi Arabia to practice medicine from 1999-2001, I left my car in New York. For the first time, as a Muslim woman, Islam was now the basis for my confinement and not my freedom.
The Saudi driving prohibition was “cultural” until Nov. 6, 1990, when 47 veiled Saudi women defied the ban and drove in a 14-vehicle convoy on the King Abdul Aziz highway in Riyadh. They were inspired by American female GIs in their military vehicles during Desert Storm and by Kuwaiti women who had arrived in the kingdom as Saddam Hussein attacked Kuwait.
For their insurrection, these women were arrested, jailed for several hours, and their passports confiscated. They were summarily dismissed from their jobs and banned from traveling overseas for one year. Soon after, Saudi authorities issued explicit fatwas, or religious edicts, banning driving by women.
Ironically, the ban is particularly problematic for an Islamic monarchy since it is fundamentally unIslamic. Muslim women lacking male relatives have been making solo pilgrimages to Mecca for centuries without restriction. Their journeys reflect Islam’s recognition of their rights as individuals.
One need only look at the very genesis of Islam – the ayyam-al Sahaba (the days of the companions of the Prophet Muhammad) – for evidence of women’s freedom of agency. Early Muslim feminists are role models that every faith-literate Muslim holds dear. The most preeminent, Khadija, the first Muslim and the first wife of the prophet, and Aisha, the prophet’s later wife, are canonized in Islamic history.
Khadija, a wealthy merchant woman, was at first Muhammad’s employer, and later (through a trusted intermediary) she offered him a proposal of marriage. She continued her business dealings after marriage and is considered the archetypal Muslim female entrepreneur. Khadija exemplifies the possibility of economic gender equality within Islam, and as a merchant she traveled frequently and independently.
Aisha was famed for her autonomy, knowledge, and exceptional leadership which would fully blossom during her widowhood. The prophet himself recognized her scholarship publicly: “Learn half your religion from that red-headed one!”
Both women are counted among Islam’s most esteemed as the Umm-al-Momeneen – Mothers of the Faithful. These women are seen as trustees of the entire Muslim flock.
Both are clearly depicted in Islamic writings conducting their business, whether trade or education, independently. Both have been documented to be riding camels and horses as a means to complete their activities. Both operated outside their homes in workplaces at a time when Arabia was agrarian and pastoral and allowed women’s roles to span home and work.