Who Has the Right to Speak Out Against the Ban on Women Driving in Saudi Arabia?
In Saudi Arabia, women still do not have the right to drive. Recently, a group of Saudi women have challenged this ban, running the risk of prosecution and punishment by their government. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton initially refrained from being too hard on the Saudis, arguing instead for “quiet diplomacy.” It is now being reported that Clinton has abandoned this approach and has issued a public statement of support for Saudi Women for Driving.
However, the initial reluctance to issue a public statement and the mildness of the issued public statement make us wonder if the United States has tempered its criticism based on its (perceived) national interest and regional “needs.” The Saudi government may well be the most ultra-conservative, fundamentalist, and backwards regime since the Taliban’s Afghanistan, but the Saudi leadership is subservient to American power–and is therefore acceptable.
Simply put, the Saudis are our favorite type of tyrants–U.S. friendly tyrants–ones we can work with and do business with. Of course, if they ever get out of line like our former-friend-turned-enemy Saddam Hussein did, then we can always invade and occupy them. But for now, as long as they do our bidding, we could care less if they repress their people, whether it be women or Shi’ites.
From time to time, the U.S. will be forced to issue public statements against certain actions of Saudi Arabia, just as it sometimes does against Israel. But these statements will not be too forceful, and certainly won’t be the “ratcheting up of rhetoric” of war and aggression that would take place had this been Iran that was involved.
I should clarify, however, that I don’t want the United States or Clinton to “ratchet up” the rhetoric of war and aggression against Saudi Arabia. As a peacenik, I don’t support any of America’s wars, let alone want yet another Muslim country to be invaded. I’m merely commenting on the double standard of American foreign policy, which is even more apparent in the way the U.S. talks about the “Arab Spring” democratic movement in Libya versus in Saudi Arabia and neighboring Bahrain.
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Certain right-wing elements support the ratcheting up of the rhetoric of war and aggression against Saudi Arabia, with some even advocating the use of military force. On the other hand, conservative Muslim Hebah Ahmed has argued on CNN that Hillary Clinton shouldn’t meddle in the internal affairs of Saudi Arabia at all and that foreign intervention will be resented by the Saudi citizenry.
The first view, calling for an aggressive posture against Saudi Arabia, would of course be counter-productive. The opposing view espoused by Hebah Ahmed–that only Saudis and Saudis alone have a right to speak out against the women driving ban–is also wrong.
First things first, it is worthwhile to point out a few errors in Hebah Ahmed’s analysis. She opens up by saying “this is not a religious issue.” She is correct in saying that there is nothing in Islam that prohibits women from driving. Quite the opposite in fact. The early Muslim women in the time of the Prophet Muhammad freely “drove around” on camels and horses. Neither the Islamic prophet or his disciples forbade this. There is absolutely no reason then, argue most Muslims, to prohibit women from driving.
However, Ahmed is incorrect in saying that the Saudi ban on women driving is not a religious issueat all. In fact, the Saudi clerics have forbidden women from driving based on religious grounds. They have used a vague and open-ended principle of Islamic jurisprudence, sadd al-dhara’i (which means “blocking the means” to sin), to ban women from driving. What this means is that it is licit to forbid something which in and of itself is not sinful because that something will likely lead to something else that is sinful.
The principle of “blocking the means” is a contentious one, and accounts for the differing Muslim views on various issues. The principle has a very limited role and used very sparingly by more liberal minds, whereas it is used expansively and widely by ultra-conservative Islamic clerics who ban everything from university education to women driving.
The late Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, known as Ibn Baz, issued the following religious verdictforbidding women from driving:
People have spoken a great deal in the al-Jazeerah newspaper about the issue of women driving cars. It is well known that it leads to evil consequences which are well known to those who promote it, such as being alone with a non-mahram [stranger] woman, unveiling, reckless mixing with men, and committing haraam [forbidden] actions because of which these things were forbidden. Islam forbids the things that lead to haraam [forbidden] and regards them as being haraam [forbidden] too.
Not only was Grand Mufti Ibn Baz the highest religious authority in the country, but he is highly respected by the group and religious sect followed by Hebah Ahmed. This is not to say that Hebah Ahmed necessarily agrees with every view espoused by Ibn Baz. Yet, it is clearly incorrect to say that this is not a religious issue at all!
It is very much a religious issue: the debate is between more tolerant Islamic interpretation on the one hand and ultra-conservative interpretation on the other hand. In the specific case of women driving, the Saudis are alone in the Islamic world in forbidding it. Clearly, we all should support the more tolerant view.
Hebah Ahmed also argues that this is a “cultural issue” and that Saudi women may have different views on it. This is not merely a cultural issue: it is a basic issue of human, civil and women’s rights. You are either on the side in support of an inherent right or you are defending a backward rule. Whether or not some Saudi women may be on the latter side is irrelevant. Ahmed argues that any movement must “come from within Saudi Arabia”, not forced onto it by the outside. Yet, this is exactly the case here: it is Saudi women who are involved in the protest.
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Yet, I share some of Hebah Ahmed’s discomfort with the idea of Hillary Clinton issuing a public statement on this issue. This leads me to the question of: who has the right to speak out against the women driving ban in Saudi Arabia?
The United States has very little credibility in the Islamic and Arab world. This is due to a policy of inconsistency, double standards, and hypocrisy in the region. The U.S. has one standard for human and civil rights abuses in Iran and a completely different one for Israel. One of the many pretexts for invading Iraq was that Saddam Hussein attacked, killed, and displaced Kurds in the late 1980′s. When Israel attacks, kills, and displaces Palestinians, the U.S. not only doesn’t impose sanctions on Israel or attack it, but in fact continues to fund Israel and shield it from international criticism.
The examples of U.S. hypocrisy in the region are endless, and are well-known in the Islamic and Arab world. Perhaps the greatest hypocrisy of all is that the United States posits itself as the defender of human rights in the world–often chastising other countries for their abuses in this regard–while at the same time the U.S. is involved in more wars of aggression and occupation than any other country in the world.
It is a fundamental human right to live, and the U.S. takes this right away from hundreds of thousands–if not millions–of people by dropping bombs on their heads. In fact, the right to life is the most sacred and most important human right. The United States lost its human rights credibility when it embarked on a path of Endless War–of military occupation and world domination.
Those involved in or those who defend the taking away of the most fundamental of human rights from thousands or millions of people have absolutely no right to speak about human rights in another country. This applies to Hillary Clinton, and it also applies to the right-wing elements who support Endless War on the one hand and criticize other countries for their human and civil rights abuses on the other hand.
So, who then has the right to speak out against the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia and other such human and civil rights abuses in the world? Surely, it is those few, lone voices who speak the truth no matter who it is for or against. Throughout history and in every nation have there been such truth-seekers, those who refuse to become ideologues or propagandists. These are people like Glenn Greenwald, who will hold his own government accountable for what it does wrong, even holding a Democratic president’s feet to the fire. These are people who are not beholden to governmental power, or to national or religious affiliation or affinity. They are beholden to nothing but the truth.
The holy book of the Muslims, the Quran, well describes the maxim followed by such people:
Stand up firmly for justice, as witnesses before God, even if it be against your own selves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it be against rich or poor. (Quran, 4:135)
When American officials and pundits can only see what is wrong with others, especially their perceived enemies–while simultaneously ignoring the same in themselves and their allies–this is not standing up for justice. Neither is it standing up for justice when certain conservative Muslims see everything wrong with the United States and Israel but ignore the wrongs committed by a regime that follows their particular interpretation of Islam.
Yet, neutral observers who consistently oppose injustice–those who “stand up firmly for justice…even if it be against [their] own selves…or [their] kin”–have every right to speak out against the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia. Such truth-seekers and upholders of justice–whether they be inside of or outside of Saudi Arabia–should condemn the Saudi government (and the clerical establishment that provides religious justification) for forbidding women from such a basic human right.
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Because Saudi Women for Driving itself requested Hillary Clinton to issue a public statement, it is of course reasonable that she did. Yet, the hypocrisy of America criticizing others for human rights abuses while simultaneously being one of the worst offenders should not be lost.
It should also be noted that U.S. concerns over women’s rights in the Islamic world will quite naturally (and correctly) be seen as “colonial feminism.” The U.S. does, after all, have a long history of using the excuse of human rights to justify its wars of aggression, occupation, and domination. This is the white elephant in the room and no matter how unjust, discriminatory, and oppressive these Muslim regimes are, nothing will allow the United States to have a moral superiority over them until these wars of aggression–“the supreme international crime”–are brought to an end.
We should not let ourselves be cowered into defending injustice due to false claims of “patriotism” nor should Muslims do so based on a sense of religious “brotherhood.” To the latter aspect, Muhammad–the Islamic prophet–specifically commanded Muslims to “help your brother [even if] he is an oppressor…by preventing him from oppressing others” (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol.3, Book 43, #624).
We ought not be silent on U.S. crimes because we have been browbeaten with the need to be “patriotic,” nor should Muslims or people of any other religion have another separate standard for their own “Ummah.” Justice has one standard which should be applied to all, irrespective of nationality or religion.
Being vocal when crimes are committed by one’s opponents while silent when the same is done by oneself or by one’s allies or ideological group is not justice; it is nothing but ideologue-driven political opportunism.