Drive, Saudi sisters, drive

Over a decade ago, I wrote a small piece about Druze women in Israel undertaking their own form of social initiative, by learning how to drive.  (It was sometime in 1998; the original internet magazine where it was published it no longer exists.) I remember being fascinated to learn that driving could be a key step towards slow, incremental change in gender roles in a traditional society, leading to social advancement and women’s progress.

I personally love to drive. I think that beyond the obvious physical independence, there’s something about the feeling of being on the road, free and fast and in control, that inspires me. There is a sort of power in the knowledge that human beings have conquered both geography and time – it makes me feel that anything is possible.

With this in mind, I wish my sisters in Saudi Arabia congratulations and support in their brave protest today to have the indefensible, outrageous de facto ban on women driving canceled forever. I don’t know how long it will take, or how many of them will suffer for their efforts. But I admire their courage to make this demand in a repressive society; I suffer with those of them who will pay a price. That is what I want to say today.

And in the event that some cynics in any part of the world would read this and say that a Saudi woman might not want my support, as a Jewish Israeli of bleeding-heart bourgeois American origin, let me express my uncompromised belief that human freedom and dignity must be universally supported and can be trans-nationally embraced. Cynics are invited to buzz off. Universal human rights, liberties and duties, both negative and positive liberties, are the values I choose; these are the values of the century in which I was born and raised and they remain my values to this day.

On the Israel point, the following response by a New York Times reader here in Tel Aviv regarding the Saudi women’s protest struck me: 

To the Editor:

… Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz al-Saud [said]: “We’re not calling for diplomatic relations with Israel. We’re just asking for ladies to drive the car.”

But in contrast with the intended implication of that statement, allowing women to drive and recognizing Israel are in fact intimately connected: the failure to carry out either of them exhibits the unwillingness to come to terms with Western civilization of the 21st century.

Tel Aviv, June 15, 2011

Now, I don’t believe everyone must embrace Western civilization, which has many ills of its own. Nor do I believe every person has to love Israel; it’s not for me to tell anyone what to feel.

But I approve of the notion that Saudi women and men alike can and should understand the Israeli people’s right to self-determination; just as I stand committed to the realization of Palestinian self-determination.  And just as I wish and pray for every Saudi woman to hear the rush of wind in her ears and an endless road of possibility stretching out ahead, hers alone to conquer.