Argument

Hands Off the Wheel

The most ridiculous Saudi arguments against women drivers.

If this year's Arab freedom movements had a soundtrack, it'd be an eclectic assortment, from the densely operatic story line that saw the deposement of Hosni Mubarak, to the thunderous mortars and bomb blasts of Libya, to the staccato work of government snipers in Syria. The most recent track would likely prove to be among the more modest: the car horns currently being honked across Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia has largely been immune to the uprisings and revolutions sweeping the region: Minor rumblings by the Shiite minority in the Eastern Province were quickly quieted, and the government handed out billions of dollars to citizens in a pre-emptive measure to quell any would-be dissent. But a campaign by Saudi women claiming the right to drive -- the conservative Gulf monarchy is the only country in the world that forbids women to operate automobiles -- threatens to shake up the status quo.

As in neighboring countries, the protests are relying on civil disobedience: One of the organizers of the movement, Manal al-Sharif, was arrested by Saudi authorities on Sunday, May 22, after twice filming herself driving a car in her hometown of Dammam and posting the videos to YouTube. Despite the demonstrative arrest, the movement shows little sign of slowing down: A lively Twitter campaign named Women2Drive is calling for women across Saudi Arabia to take to the streets (in automobiles) on June 17.

The stakes may not seem as high as those that have toppled dictators elsewhere in the region, but the Saudi monarchy is quickly moving to extinguish the threat to its absolute rule. And that includes offering a blanket defense of the status quo, women-free roads included. From Riyadh's perspective, there are apparently plenty of good reasons -- theological, sociological, biological -- that women shouldn't be allowed to get behind the wheel. The Saudi monarchy has seen fit in recent months to trot each out for a spin in the national media (exclusively owned, natch, by Saudis close to the royal family).

All in all, it's an impressive display of pseudo-intellectual apologetics. Judges for the Saudi Pulitzers have no doubt already taken note, but here's a digest for the rest of us.

You're not oppressed, you're a princess!

In Arab News, Rima al-Mukhtar argues that Saudi women don't really want to drive to begin with. "To them," she writes, "driving is a hassle and not appropriate for Saudi Arabia" because Saudi women usually hire drivers to chauffeur them wherever they need to go. "Usually, only the rich and famous have their own chauffeur," she adds, "but in Saudi Arabia almost everyone has one." She quotes several Saudi women who are loath to assume the tiresome responsibility of having to steer their own vehicles. "When I travel to a country where I can drive," says Zaina al-Salem, a 29-year-old banker, "I'm usually burdened about the part when I get to park my car and walk all the way to the store." (Walking's bad enough, but when you throw in the humidity? Forget about it!) Shahad Ibrahim adds, "I feel like a princess where my driver takes me everywhere I want without complaint."

You steer, I leer.

In the newspaper Asharq Alawsat, Salem Salman reviews a play titled "Profit Becomes a Loss," performed at Riyadh's Disabled Children's Association Theater. (Off-off Broadway, then?) Drawing on the great classics of the stage, the play "deals mainly with the issue of female driving," dramatizing the plight of women who mistakenly associate freedom of movement with true liberation. Far from being ennobled by their ability to drive automobiles, the characters in the play realize they've been diminished by their exposure to the broader culture -- in essence, driving meant being harassed by constant catcalls. Apparently, the playwright felt so strongly about the point that, by play's end, he abandoned all pretense of subtlety and went straight to the CliffsNotes version. The concluding words, spoken by a forlorn woman driver, read: "Help me, people, I'm afraid to drive.… We do not want this civilization.... So write this down; forget about driving." Bravo?

The king knows best.

Abdul Rahman al-Rashed, in Asharq Alawsat, eschews a defense of the ban in favor of attacking the methods used by the organizers of the movement. The campaign, you see, is operating under the mistaken assumption that Saudi Arabia is a democracy. By compiling petitions and the like, the activists are trying "to take a shortcut with regards to convincing the government to change its position on the issue." Of course, it's the government's job to make policy on the basis of what the "overwhelming majority" -- as opposed to a shortsighted, if democratically legitimate "slim majority" -- of Saudi society wants. "An overwhelming majority is beneficial in this case as it would allow the idea to become reality with only a little official push," he notes. "A slim majority on the other hand would result in bitter social and political division."

Al-Rashed further suggests that Saudi activists take the government's word that it's correctly divining the public will -- not least because objective measures of public opinion are unavailable. Why's that? Because they're illegal, of course! "Is there truly public support towards ending the ban on women driving? Nobody knows," he writes. That's your classic straight-talking al-Rashed: holding the Saudi public accountable for the ignorance that's been forcibly imposed on it by the government.

The editor in chief of Asharq Alawsat, Tariq Alhomayed, takes a similar tack, warning against unnecessarily politicizing the issue. Taking the technocratic route, he suggests the "formation of a committee to study the issue" and the creation of a pilot program that would allow Saudi women "of a certain age" to begin driving in certain cities. That said, this is a terrible idea: We presume Alhomayed has never been to Boca Raton.

God says women drivers are evil and deserve to die.

And then there's this. The Saudi-owned Elaph.com website reports on the meditations of Saudi cleric Shaykh Abd-al-Rahman al-Barrak against women who wish to drive cars. "What they are intending to do is forbidden and they thus become the keys to evil in this country," he writes, calling them "westernized women seeking to westernize this country." Name-calling aside, al-Barrack is drawing on an extremist Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, according to which God forbids any mixed-gender mingling outside the family. Giving women the freedom to move around on their own would be to tempt God's wrath.

In fact, al-Barrak predicts the activists will be struck dead: "They will die, God willing, and will not enjoy this." The reporter for Elaph.com, with an impressive degree of restraint, refers to this as "biting criticism." (Al-Barrack seems to enjoy something of a contrarian reputation among the Wahhabi chattering classes: Earlier this year, he endorsed a fatwa that calls for the demolishment and subsequent redesigning of Mecca's Kaaba -- Islam's holiest site -- so as to avoid gender mixing. Biting!)

At least no one offered up the old saw that women aren't any good at driving. Probably because on that score Saudi women are painfully aware that their male counterparts aren't in any position to judge.

Argument

Government in Exile

The Dalai Lama prepares to hand-off Tibet's political leadership to a fresh new face.

On Wednesday, the Dalai Lama definitively declared that he would reject any appeal to continue serving as a political leader of the Tibetan community outside of China. It was an announcement that focused renewed attention on Lobsang Sangay, the man scheduled to soon assume political authority for the nation-in-exhile -- though Sangay's likely already used to the media spotlight.

Indeed, last month's election of a new prime minister of the Tibetan exile government was covered by the media across the world, from Slovakia to Indonesia -- unusual for a government which is not officially recognized by any state. But amid the hubbub, much of the event's substantive importance was lost. Much of the buzz was about the new leader's history and style: the 43-year-old Sangay dresses like a patrician lawyer (with aviator sunglasses, according to the BBC), speaks with utter confidence in himself, and had a fellowship at Harvard Law School for much of the last 10 years -- a far cry from the self-effacing, soft-spoken style of many Tibetan exiles.

 

Most of the media coverage focused on the unlikely ascent of a Tibetan refugee to an elite American university: "New prime minister of Tibet's 'government-in-exile' attended Harvard Law School," ran CNN's headline for the story. The Indian media enthused as well, focusing on what Sangay calls his "humble origins," namely his childhood in a village home near Darjeeling, India, with two to three cows, one of which he says was sold to pay for his schooling.

Sangay's personal style was not irrelevant: His "Indian/American" approach to campaigning, as he called it, led to a far more lively election than its two anemic predecessors, featuring public debates and hard-hitting campaign websites. There was a 59 percent turnout among the 80,000 Tibetan exiles who registered to vote in the 30 countries where exile Tibetans are now living, the vast majority of them in India. Sangay's declared priority was conventional -- to "pave the way for the return of the Dalai Lama to his rightful residence at the Potala Palace" in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa -- but he promised to bring "new energy, new ideas, new vigor" to the Tibetan cause and argued that his legal studies would equip him to "facilitate ... dialogue" with China. He was rewarded with 55 percent of the vote, a victory described by the New York Times as "signaling a generational shift within the Tibetan movement."

Thus it is the change in the electors that is significant, rather than the man that they elected. The election showed an exile community that wants to see change in an administration widely viewed as overly bureaucratic, poorly educated, and resistant to innovation. The voters will be watching keenly to see whether he implements his promises to reform exile education and government, and already more sophisticated discussion has emerged among exiles than the usual arguments over whether to pursue independence or to resort to violent struggle. For example, one group of young exile intellectuals has started a website that fact-checks the claims of would-be exile leaders. They have already stimulated a debate over Sangay's funding, which some say originates not from Harvard, as he has claimed, but from a Taiwanese foundation that paid the university to give him a fellowship.

The unexpected surge of political activism and critique among exiles is a vindication for the Dalai Lama, who has been trying to get them to develop a robust leadership system that will survive his death. This March he had called on the exile parliament to change its constitution so that in the future, elected officials will replace him and his successors as heads of the Tibetan government. The Tibetan exile community had rejected a similar proposal 20 years ago, but this time, his strategy seems to have been unexpectedly successful: Many Tibetans and their organizations have publicly welcomed the advent of a secular, modern system. This adds theoretically to pressure on China, because it makes it less certain that the exile project will collapse once its spiritual leader dies, as Beijing strategists are believed to have predicted.

But Sangay's impact will be mostly on domestic issues and the prospect of a more dynamic exile community in India. In international terms, what matters about the election is what it indicates about China and its ability to rule Tibet. It showed that Beijing's current influence in New Delhi is limited; otherwise the polls would not have been allowed in India -- this was hardly mentioned by the media. Little notice was paid to the fact that 13,000 Tibetan exiles in Nepal had their votes seized by Nepalese riot police on the innovative grounds that the election constituted "anti-China activities" and therefore was "against our foreign policy," as a government spokesman put it. That means that China is gaining significant influence in Nepal that it never had before.

On these larger issues the exile role is limited, except for that of the Dalai Lama, who speaks for the 97 percent of Tibetans, some 5.4 million people, who remain within their country. Although he will formally give up his position as the head of the exile government on Aug. 15, it is he, not the new prime minister, who will remain in charge of any talks with China. Because Beijing has always insisted it will talk only with his private representatives -- it blasted the exiled government and Sangay's election as "illegitimate" -- the exiles will certainly demand that the Dalai Lama, retired or not, continue to lead any contacts with Beijing. In any case, China's strategists are primarily concerned not with exile politicians but with the Dalai Lama, because he is the only major charismatic leader who has millions of followers living within their territory. So its policy toward exiles will continue to focus on trying to delay serious negotiations with the Dalai Lama while he lives and controlling the selection of his successor once he dies.

These are objectives, however, that it might find difficult to sustain. In a Tibetan area of Sichuan province called Ngaba, for example, Beijing has got itself into a major confrontation in which the local monastery has been sealed off by troops for much of the last two months, 300 monks have been taken away for "legal education," and two villagers were allegedly clubbed to death by soldiers -- all because of a solitary act of self-immolation on March 16 by a local monk who wanted to commemorate the deaths of as many as 10 Tibetans shot by Chinese police in a protest there three years ago.

The exiles' new leader can do little about the Ngaba crackdown, but the Dalai Lama, who spent last week giving public talks on ethics to students in California, could have major influence there, especially if Beijing were to ask him to give practical assistance, as it has done quietly in the past -- and because Sangay's accession will relieve the Dalai Lama of his formal political role, it will be marginally easier for Beijing to approach him with less loss of face. The questions we need to be asking are therefore not about the well-groomed prime minister shaking up the exiles' cabinet, but about whether Tibetans in China will accept Chinese rule -- and whether their continuing resistance might finally push Beijing to talk to the Dalai Lama, now that someone else has taken over his political position.