National Geographic : 2016 Feb
130 national geographic • february 2016 women to accept the prospect of voting and running for office themselves. Hostility from traditionalists has been part of their challenge, but so has indifference, even from ambitious women: The first time in nearly a half centu- ry that Saudi men voted was in 2005, and the only elected offices are municipal council seats, positions of no authority. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is not a constitutional monarchy. There’s no separate prime minister, no parliament. Ab- solute control remains in the hands of the Al Sauds, the now enormous family for whom the nation was named. “Sometimes we’re in the 21st century, and sometimes we’re in the 19th,” a professional Riyadh woman who has lived abroad told me, sounding both aggrieved and resigned. “And imagine yourself in the European Middle Ages, with the Catholic Church.” She meant that in Saudi Arabia, dogmatic religious leaders and a royal dynasty still officially share power, to an extent almost unfathomable to people from more secular countries. Insults to Islam or threats to national security—both expedient- ly elastic categories, encompassing blogging, social media, and open defense of the already accused—are among the crimes punishable by imprisonment, flogging, or death. Executions are carried out by public beheading. The or- ganization that runs the religious police (who often operate alongside national police and are authorized to advise, berate, and arrest) is called the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. The conviction that a society’s virtue and vice can be managed by keeping men and women apart—that by nature men are lustful and wom- en seductive, so that being a good Muslim re- quires constant attention to the perils of close contact—is so foundational in daily life that it reappears, for the mystified visitor, in one ex- planation after another. The reason hotel swim- ming pools won’t admit women or set aside a ladies-only hour: Men might glimpse women’s moving shapes in the water. The reason most Saudi clothing stores have no dressing rooms: Women won’t take their clothes off with male clerks on the other side of the door. The reason Saudi Arabia has only one movie theater, a new science museum IMAX: The government shut all cinemas during the conservative surge in the 1980s. Besides screening problematic Western movies, dark movie theaters make it easier for men and women to mix. And the famous prohibition against wom- en drivers? Raising this with Saudi girls and women, I found, elicits an interesting set of reactions, often in the same sequence. First, they say, it is a certainty that Saudi women will be driving sooner or later, despite the thriving subeconomy—taxis, private drivers, the recruit- ing industry that brings in those drivers from abroad—that feeds off the men-only rules. Some women drive already, in the desert or other ar- eas where no one pays attention; a causeway connects eastern Saudi Arabia to Bahrain, and it’s not unusual for Saudi husbands or chauf- feurs to exit the driver’s seat at the border so the madam can take over. The second reaction is a sober consideration of the anti-women-driving arguments. The proposition that women would prove unfit be- hind the wheel and cause accidents—preposter- ous; the traffic death rate on Saudi highways is a source of national despair. The proposition that women would have affairs and abandon their families if they could leave home whenever This obligation to hide the female form from men who are not family, so perplexing and unsettling to outsiders, can be complicated for Saudis too.