Saudi Women Get Behind the Wheel

Journalist and author Katherine Zoepf joins the podcast to discuss social change in Saudi Arabia, and the country’s lifting of a ban that prevented women from getting behind the wheel. Zoepf has done in-depth reporting throughout the Middle East for The New Yorker and other publications, specifically focusing on the experiences of women. 

Below is an excerpt from October 2017 interview. To listen to the whole episode, download Listen, Ladies in iTunes.

Listen, Ladies (LL): I’m very lucky to have journalist and author Katherine Zoepf on the podcast today. She reported on the public and private lives of young women throughout the Middle East for her book Excellent Daughters.Her work has appeared in several publications including The New York Timesand The New Yorker,where she’s had two feature pieces focused specifically on women in Saudi Arabia. Katherine, thanks so much for speaking with Listen Ladies. I want to get into the news from late September that women in Saudi Arabia will finally be able to obtain drivers’ licenses. Before we get there I’m hoping we can just talk about some of the background here. What is the basis for the restrictions in lifestyle that women currently face in the country?

Katherine Zoepf (KZ): It’s really a combination of factors. Depending on whom you speak to it’s either religion or traditions that were present in pre-Islamic Arabia. In general, liberal Saudis blame these tradition and conservative Saudis insist it’s that it’s Islam and it’s un-Islamic for women to do certain things.

The first Saudi women to publically protest the restriction did so in the early 1990s during the early stages of the Gulf War. A group of women got together and drove through Riyadh in protest against ban; after that there was a huge crackdown by the government. The women were jailed, they lost their jobs, they were criticized. Word of their actions spread across the kingdom and even elicited death threats. Some of them had to spend periods in hiding. After that several Saudi clerics came out with rulings that spoke explicitly against women driving. Before then, according to the activists I’ve spoken to, there really was no nobleteaching against driving; it just was customary that women didn’t drive; it was conventional. There really were no laws against it, but I think the clerics got a whisper in their ears from the government in favor of a ban. This has always driven activists nuts because they point out that the Prophet Muhammad’s wives themselves rode horses and camels. Indeed Muhammad’s first wife owned a company that operated and traded caravans across the region!

Author Katherine Zoepf

Author Katherine Zoepf

LL: When you talk about activists, is that activist actually in Saudi Arabia? Because there’s definitely not a civil society in that country.

KZ: It’s interesting because there’s a tiny, tiny community of activists in the country, but they’re better known to the readers of Western newspapers than they are to their fellow citizens! When I first started to realize this, I thought, well these aren’t real activists, they don’t have a following within their country, so are these women just trying to get attention from the foreign press? What does this mean? It took me years to realize that their keeping such a low profile about their activities is intentional: It’s the most effective way to be an activist in that context. They’re not actually speaking to their fellow Saudis, they’re trying to have a dialogue with the outside world because the king isn’t in the know.

LL: It seems like people here are so excited. What about the conversations among young women there? Are they excited? One of the things I really like about your reporting is that you relay so many personal conversations that you have with women.

KZ: They’re excited—though most of them are not quite as excited as we might imagine. It’s interesting: Most of the women I’ve spoken to have said essentially, “Oh, well, it’s nice to have the option, but I’m certainly not going to let my driver go anytime soon.” A number of women have said, and this sort of surprised me, that they thought maybe the best thing about the possibility of the ban’s being lifted is that foreigners would finally shut up about women driving! They feel like it has become the only conversation possible to have with a foreigner. It’s just exhausting a little bit, a little bit intrusive. A few women have said, “Well, I’m glad that I have the option, but you know, really I’m just glad that you all will stop talking about it.” Which has been really funny to hear.


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