A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Inconceivable: So It Can't Be Happening

Fans of the cult movie The Princess Bride will recall the exchange between a character who keeps using the word "Inconceivable!" for every unanticipated development and another who responds, "You keep using that word. I don't think it means what you think it means."

I was reminded of that when reading this exchange:
The officer looks stricken. "I don't know what to do," he says plaintively. He has never been faced with a female driver before. "If I raise it up [the issue of her driving] it is wrong. If I let you go it is wrong." Maha al Qatani just stares him down.
After a tense half hour, Mohammad al Qatani returns with the cop at his side. Maha shifts to the passenger seat, and Mohammad takes the wheel. He silently hands her a yellow sheet of paper. Maha al Qatani stares at it for a moment, her brow furrowed in confusion. Then she breaks into peals of laughter.

Raising her fists in a victory salute, she shouts, "It's a ticket. Write this down. I am the first Saudi woman to get a traffic ticket."

I didn't post last week on the Saudi women's driving protest, and if you're not familiar with it you can read this and also this,  but this poor cop didn't have a clue what to do when pulling over a Saudi woman whose husband was in the car. It gives me an opportunity to get my two cents in a bit belatedly.And of course there's the inevitable Facebook page here.

I'm no lawyer but if I understand correctly it is religious edicts, not legislation proper, that bars Saudi women from driving, though the obvious conundrum is that this means most Saudi women require (male) chauffeurs, usually foreigners (Pakistanis and such) who are unrelated, though otherwise they're not permitted to be in the presence of unrelated males. Other Muslim countries, even rigorous ones like Iran, or so far as I know even Afghanistan under the Taliban (which was content with keeping women out of schools) have not banned driving. It's persistently rumored that even King ‘Abdullah favors change, but if so he must be intimidated by the religious establishment.

It may be that the "Arab Spring," bringing down governments and provoking civil wars elsewhere, may have a much lower goal in Saudi Arabia: women drivers. Somebody somewhere on TV said, "Ladies, Start Your Engines," but I can't give proper credit because I can't remember who. (Diane Sawyer maybe?) I agree of course, but this is actually a fairly strange and unduplicated restriction, and I can't believe it will stand forever. The "foreign male driver" issue may be the cause for its eventual fall, but whatever works and all that.

I'm about to head to an awards ceremony marking my daughter's last day in fifth grade and her promotion to Middle School, so my other posts today will be this afternoon and evening.

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