Monday, 5 December 2011

Women driving means immorality, say Saudis. Could they be right?

The latest piece of nonsense from the parallel universe that is Saudi Arabia concerns a report - prepared for the government by a leading academic - on the possible effects of rescinding the country's iconic ban on women drivers. The news was not good. Allowing women behind the wheel, thought Professor Kamal Subhi would "provoke a surge in prostitution, pornography, homosexuality and divorce". It would also mean that, within ten years, there would be "no more virgins" in Saudi Arabia. Since Saudi is a country that smiles upon the forced marriage of nine year old girls, that prediction may be even more alarming than it at first appears.

Subhi's report comes with the authority of the kingdom's highest religious council, so the king would be mad, mad I tell you, not to treat its conclusions with deadly seriousness. And Subhi certainly did his research thoroughly. He described sitting in a coffee shop in another Arab state - one of the decadent ones, obviously - where "all the women were looking at me". "One made a gesture that made it clear that she was available," he said. "This is what happens when women are allowed to drive."

Indeed. One minute they're sitting at home, fully veiled, waiting for their husband to give them permission to have a cup of tea. The next they're eyeing up strange academics in coffee shops. I'm reminded of Bishop Richard Williamson, who once blamed Europe's moral decline on the perverse desire of women to wear trousers.

Subhi's message is a fairly simple one, it seems. Women need to be very fully repressed indeed, because once you allow them even the tiniest little bit of freedom society becomes awash with decadence and immorality. The minxes can't help themselves. It's in their nature.

Now let's conceed he may have a point, or at least examine the possibility that there might be a link between women having cars and the general decline of moral standards in society. After all, look at the West, where women have been allowed to drive ever since there were such things as motor cars.

In the beginning, a woman driver was quite a rare sight, since cars were expensive and manly things. Almost as rare as a female high court judge or member of Parliament. In those much-lamented days when men were men and women were housewives there was very little immorality. No hardcore porn on the internet, no "objectified" late-teenage slappers falling drunkenly out of nightclubs, few if any teenage mothers. Divorce was legal, but led to social death in most circles. There may have been prostitutes (when were they not) but they didn't write bestselling memoirs that became the subject of racy television adaptations. And of course (Subhi will be delighted at this one) there were no homosexuals. Or if they were, they lived in justified terror of being banged up in Wormwood Scrubs, and quite right too.

So the correlation works. Women having the freedom to drive is positively correlated with many of the things that Professor Kamal Subhi disapproves of. Coincidentally, most of these evils resemble things that feminists of the Gail Dines persuasion campaign against, everything from hardcore porn on the internet to Lady Gaga's costume preferences. Dines recently wrote (Guardian, obviously) that "hypersexualism" - which she blames on corporate culture, rather than women having driving licences - undermined "women's rights to sexual autonomy, physical safety and economic and social equality."

Her argument, being "politically progressive", should never be confused with "rightwing attempts to police sexual behaviour." Yet it's an easy confusion to make, because leftwing feminist anti-sexualisation campaigners and rightwing religious anti-sexualisation campaigners are by-and-large talking about the same thing, and it's much the same thing that Subhi fears will happen in Saudi Arabia if women are allowed to drive. To wit, an epidemic of overt public sexuality.

Why is it that when women become emancipated, so many of them use their new freedom to remove their clothes? Can it all be explained by corporate culture perpetuating the malign reign of the patriarchy, as Gail Dines would have you believe, or is it perhaps that Eve wasn't framed after all, that women's rampant and destructive sexuality will loose itself at the earliest opportunity unless kept under the firm control of men and religion? I wouldn't presume to know. But the correlation, if not the causation, is clear. A free society is a sexualised society. Where women are forced to cover their bodies their choices in other aspects of their lives will be equally circumscribed. In extreme cases, they might not even be allowed to drive.

Put it the other way, allowing women to drive would signal (and also in contribute to) a wider liberalisation of manners and morals that could lead eventually to Western-style decadence. The one may not lead directly to the other, although undoubtedly having a car makes it easier for both men and women to conduct illicit sexual relationships (and I don't just mean on the back seat). But why take the risk?

When it came to his shocking tale of being brazenly looked at by some hussy in a coffee shop, I don't know if Professor Subhi was referring to Egypt, where women are still (for the time being) allowed to drive. But a recent article by Yahia Lababidi, regarding the creeping Islamisation of Egyptian society, may offer alternative perspective on the sexually-charged atmosphere that made him feel so uncomfortable. She describes the remarkable transformation of the once "open-minded and cosmopolitan" Egypt of a few decades ago - where women could be found "happily prancing around in minis and bikinis" - to one in which "sexual repression is absurdly rampant", segregation and veiling has reached almost Saudi proportions and, in consequence, "seemingly innocuous everday activities acquire sexual connotations, such as: the slapping of slippers on a woman’s feet, the smacking of chewing gum, or smoking of a cigarette."

Lababidi argues that Islamisation is producing an unhealthy atmosphere of rampant innuendo, where soldiers ogle prepubescent girls, women wearing full veils shop in department stores for erotic lingerie "that in other countries you’d only find in sex shops" and people are unable to conceive of "a mixed crowd spending an innocent weekend at the beach or a night out dancing, without an eruption of dark depraved desire colouring everything." In such an environment, even a man like Kamal Subhi might find himself the unwitting object of a frustrated woman's transitory longing.

There was, though, something a little counter-intuitive about one of Professor Subhi's fears. How, precisely, might women driving lead to an increase in homosexuality? Has he been out and about in newly-repressive Egypt, perhaps, where as Lababidi observed:

With female flesh under wraps, and no promise of release in the near future, sensuality spills into unexpected spaces. In Cairo, the human need for physical contact often manifests in intense same-sex intimacy. It’s not the least bit unusual to encounter men holding hands, pinkies interlocked, hugging and kissing, while calling each other unusually sweet names: sokkar (sugar), a’assall (honey) or rohe albi (my heart’s soul). Equally common to witness men affectionately wrestling like scrapping puppies, or playfully grabbing each other like testosterone-maddened teens, well into middle age.

Nothing like that would ever happen in Jeddah.