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Letters to the Editor
Last Updated: 02/10/2010
RE: To Drive, or Not to Drive; Not a Question for Saudi Women
Rob L. Wagner

Dear Editor:

I read with growing alarm Jaclyn Nardone's essay entitled "To Drive, or Not to Drive; Not a Question for Saudi Women." If this essay was meant to shed light on the plight of Saudi women, it should at least be accurate and keep the Western rhetoric to the minimum.

First my background: I am an American writer who lives off and on in Saudi Arabia. I worked as a journalist there and I have taught journalism to Saudi women in Jeddah. I count many Saudi women as my friends, and I think they would prefer if writers like Jaclyn Nardone not try to help them.

Nardone's article gets off to a bad start with the photo of not Saudi women, but apparently Lebanese or Palestinians, to illustrate her piece. There are plenty of photos of Saudi women, so I can only conclude that the editors were a trifle lazy when putting this piece together.

Nardone describes Saudi Arabia as a "Wahhabi state" and only refers to Saudi Arabia as the most conservative Islamic country. She provides no explanation of what is a Wahhabi state. I don't even think Nardone understands what Wahhabi means. I can assure you that no Saudis think of themselves as Wahhabis, or the Saudi government considers itself a Wahhabi government. And few, if any religious leaders consider themselves Wahhabis. It's not in their vocabulary. Muhammad bin Abd-al-Wahhab is an historical figure in Saudi history, but he is not given any special treatment by Saudis beyond his own contributions to Islam. Saudis consider the term "Wahhabism" a Western invention designed to demonize Islam. You'll find Saudi men and women alike of the same opinion.

Nardone says that it's illegal for women to drive in Saudi Arabia.

First, women drive in rural areas because their families' livelihood depends on them. There's a significant number of women driving trucks in the Qassim region. So to say that women are "banned" from driving is false. There are no codified laws in Saudi Arabia, therefore there is no law against Saudi women driving. Women are not arrested for driving. Authorities simply call the family and ask someone to pick the woman up. Silly, yes. A law breaker, no.

Nardone also cites Wajeha Al-Huwaider as some kind of inspiration to Saudi women over the driving issue. Aside from the fact that Al-Huwaider videotaped herself driving in the desert, where women usually drive, she has little credibility among Saudi women who view her as a grandstander. Here's one Saudi woman's opinion of  Al Huwaider written for the Huffington Post:

Further, Nardone writes that "the transformation of 'unwritten social convention into a formal law' [xiii] was made legal by a Fatwa, issued by the Council of Senior Ulama. A fatwa is a religious opinion on how Muslims should conduct themselves in society. It's not law and carries no weight in the Saudi judicial system. In fact, fatwas, or religious opinions, are specifically separated from a government's legal system.

I'll also point out that Nardone's footnotes don't support her statements. And quoting other Western media like the Times of London doesn't make Nardone's statements fact.

While Nardone mentions that King Abudullah said he believes that women should be able to drive, she doesn't go far enough because she fails to get to the the crux of this issue: When Saudi society is ready, when families feel comfortable about their daughters and wives driving, then they will. Change, they are saying, comes from within, not as a result of hectoring from a university M.A. candidates who has never been to the country.

I spent four years in Saudi Arabia and still have difficulty grasping the culture. Hell, even Saudis are confused about what is an legal issue and what is a religious issue. Saudi Arabia's problems can't be solved by these black and white essays written from a Western perspective and based on Western values. It would be refreshing if a Western writer tried to approach these topics with some nuance and understanding of the culture. And if Nardone spent an hour interviewing a Saudi women, she'd be surprised at the answers she would receive.

Frankly, I despair over these kinds of articles from well-meaning websites that pretend to shed light on serious issues in the Arab world but only further stereotypes.

Best regards,

Rob L. Wagner