RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – You can’t help but feel embarrassed to watch a modern country with a vast wealth of resources in the throes of a debate over whether women should have the right to drive.
You’ve gotta be kidding, right?
I mean how can the House of Saud possibly think it can minimize the rights of 50 percent of its population and still be taken seriously as a country that seeks to influence foreign policy in the region?
I’ve been spending a lot of time with our correspondent Caryle Murphy here on the road, driving around Riyadh and heading to Jeddah for a drive into the rugged Asir Province toward the border of Yemen.
In one meeting after the next, we come across men in starched white kaffiyeh who explain with a perfectly serious face the laughable position that their country is just “not yet ready” for women to drive. The ban is enforced by the government through a distorted interpretation of the Koran and backed up by a tribal culture that straddles a fine line between what some would call paternalism and others label misogyny.
I’ve been watching Caryle, an accomplished, award-winning journalist and author, sit across from these guys and patiently listen and even keep a straight face as they tell her this. Her professionalism is impressive. She works hard at being fair to all sides of an argument and I admire her for that. But the inability of these men to see how absurd this all is makes the whole country feel ultimately untenable, at least to this outsider. I’ve only made about a half-dozen trips to the kingdom over the last 20 years, but I’ve been here often enough to know how it can lull you into complacency and I am trying not to let that happen.
The heat is so sweltering in the Saudi summer that you end up in a sort of dreamy haze, nodding off here and there and zoning out and surprisingly accepting of all the absurdity of the place. This time, I constantly feel like I need another shot of espresso and a wakeup call to remind myself that I am visiting a country that is absolutely delusional if it thinks it can keep this ban in place.
The number of women who’ve answered the call on Twitter to get behind the wheel has been surprisingly small. Fewer than 100 women so far have publicly announced their Rosa Parks moment of driving in defiance of the religious authorities who uphold the ban and the police who seem to be looking the other way for the most part.
Caryle is an incredible reporter who has been tracking down these women and covering the story hard, but she herself refuses to drive out of the good old-fashioned instinct of a journalist to, as she put it, “cover the story, not become the story.” I admire the work ethic and the old-school standards, but I am secretly hoping that she will change her mind and just take the keys and show these men how to drive.