When she recently obtained a Missouri driver’s license, college student Shrouk Alburj wasn’t thinking of liberation.
She was thinking: I need the wheels.
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Her native Saudi Arabia is the world’s only country that bars women from driving. But as a movement quietly builds back home to issue licenses to women, Alburj and other Saudi women studying in Kansas City say they’re puzzled by the attention that Americans have given the subject.
“It’s not a big issue for us,” said Alburj, 25, who is pursuing a master’s degree in public affairs at Park University. “Driving, for many women, is a social need. But I think we really need other rights more than driving.”
Her sentiments are shared by University of Missouri-Kansas City undergraduate Samaa Gazzaz. She is driving now, too, but has been conflicted over the years on whether Saudi custom must change.
American friends tell Gazzaz “it’s crazy” for a culture to forbid women from getting behind the wheel. “I’m not sure why they’re angry about it,” she said, “since I’m not angry...
“I think when you live with something for a very long time, and life is good, you don’t see the need to change,” said Gazzaz, 21. “Though I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before this does change.”
She added: “You can’t apply all the same rules here as there. It’s a really different culture. And it’s OK for people to be different.”
Experts said the ambivalence expressed by many Saudis, both within the kingdom and at U.S. universities, speaks to the power of Saudi traditions and to annoyance that Western societies ridicule their social codes.
“It’s not that they don’t care about driving,” said Ann E. Mayer, a scholar on women’s international rights at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “They may be upset about this patronizing American attitude: ‘Oh, you poor, backward people.’”
On Oct. 26, a few dozen women in Saudi Arabia defiantly got into their family cars and drove. Some posted videos of themselves behind the wheel.
Madiha al-Ajroush, a psychologist in the capital of Riyadh, has been pressing her government to issue licenses to women since 1990. News reports of the modest demonstration suggested the cause has gained little traction within a society deeply loyal to the 89-year-old King Abdullah.
“This is not a revolution,” Ajroush told The New York Times. She said the campaign merely seeks to enable her and other women to “do something as small as get myself a cappuccino or something as grand as taking my child to the emergency room” without the need for a male driver.
In Kansas City, the need to drive independently strikes many Saudi students within weeks of their arrival.
“In this city, I have to drive,” said Park graduate student Najlu Alkhalifa, who is single and would prefer not owning a car. Before coming here, she spent three years at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse “without even thinking of driving. Public transportation took care of me.”
Alkhalifa, 29, and other students interviewed by The Star insisted that their defense of Saudi driving customs was not fueled by Islamic beliefs; if so, they wouldn’t be driving in another country.
In fact, no other Islamic country denies women driving privileges.
“Even the Saudis will tell you it’s not an Islamic thing, it’s a Saudi thing,” said Ibrahim Hooper of the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations. “But this driving issue gets lumped into a mass of information that Muslim-bashers keep repeating.
“I don’t know why the king doesn’t just call for issuing licenses to women and move on,” Hooper added. “It’s not so much about the issue of driving as it is about Saudis not wanting the West to tell them how to run their culture.”
Human-rights advocates consider the driving issue much more serious, entwined in a larger culture that subjugates women of Saudi Arabia — a key U.S. ally — to second-class citizenship.
Against the wishes of strict Muslim clerics, the kingdom in recent years sent female athletes to the Olympic Games and appointed 30 women to the top advisory body, the Shura Council. But that body doesn’t legislate and its male-dominated chamber has not taken up requests of female members to discuss the issuance of driving permits.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, meeting in Riyadh this month with Saudi officials, downplayed America’s diplomatic role in securing rights for motorists.
“We embrace equality for everybody,” Kerry told reporters. “But it’s up to Saudi Arabia to make its own decisions about its own social structure.”
University of Kansas law professor Raj Bhala said that while nothing codified in Saudi or Islamic law prohibits women from driving, Saudi Arabia’s refusal to grant licenses to women flies in the face of international law with respect to equal rights.
“It seems so obvious” even if the United Nations is mum on whether driving is a human right, Bhala said: “Women are entitled to equal dignity and equal protection. That’s like asking me if rain is wet.”
He said the reluctance of Saudi women studying in the United States to criticize the custom may be partly due to their reliance on scholarships funded by their government.
UMKC student Gazzaz and her friend, Reham Bamusa of Park University, said their mothers back home — both teachers, one retired — seldom complain about needing a male relative or paid driver to take them places.
The professional drivers are provided in-home accommodations.
The two students, who came to this country with their husbands, have thus far taken different approaches to motoring around Kansas City.
Gazzaz learned to drive a Toyota RAV4 and obtained her license shortly after arriving last year.
“It was exciting, a new experience,” she said. “I’ve changed a little seeing this whole new world. I don’t know if that’s because of the culture here or me just developing” as a young adult.
Bamusa, however, is holding off the driving experience. She rides the bus if she needs to go to the supermarket and her husband is off to class.
“I like to be with my husband when in the car,” said Bamusa, 28. “That’s just more comfortable...
“And I like to be pampered. I’ll tell him, ‘Please, please, will you take me?’”