As an avid biker myself, I know well the exhilaration of riding down the open road, wind at my back; or, the less than noble schadenfreude of whipping past cars in the city creeping along at a snail’s pace in traffic, while I pedal to my destination with speed and efficiency.
Given my hobby, I couldn’t help but notice today that women in Saudi Arabia have been granted the right to … yes, ride their bikes. As an article in The Saudi Gazette has it, this permission has some strings attached:
But women will be free to drive under one condition: a male relative or guardian (Mahram) has to be present with them while they ride a bike, Saudi daily Al-Yaum reported on Monday. “Women are free to ride bikes in parks, seafronts, among other areas, providing that they are wearing fully modest dress and a male guardian has to be present in case of falls or accidents,” the newspaper reported, quoting an unnamed source from the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.
And a well-placed word to the cautious:
Samia Al-Bawardi, the head of an NGO for the victims of car accidents, warned women about riding bicycles and buggies. “Wearing abayas and erratic driving could result in terrible accidents,” she told the daily.
As someone who has been known to ride a bike in a skirt, I can attest to the fact that even that piece of attire can at times complicate bike riding. I can’t even wrap my head around how one would begin to ride a bicycle while wearing an abaya, the cloak Saudi women are required to wear in public.
Though the above is written in a lightish tone, this is a serious matter. In a recent article in Standpoint Magazine, Nick Cohen once again asks why the misogyny of regimes such as Saudia Arabia is not an issue about which Western feminists are vocal. In the worst cases, they may even be enablers of ongoing oppression. Here’s a choice piece from the article, well worth reading in its entirety:
Forget that you should oppose misogyny wherever you find it, and notice that by implying that violence and sexism are excusable Norton does not refute stereotypes but excuses them. With an ignorance remarkable in a professor of political science, she makes my point for me by saying that Marx’s On the Jewish Question inspired her. This founding document of left-wing anti-Semitism was hardly friendly to the Jewish people. Marx repeated every prejudice. The religion of the Jews was “huckstering” and their god was money. He concluded that only when “society has succeeded in abolishing the empirical essence of Judaism — huckstering and its preconditions — [will] the Jew have become impossible”. For left-wing Muslims and ex-Muslims Norton’s writing is just as insulting. Yet I suspect that she thinks of herself as being left-wing in some sense.
So, I wish the women of Saudi Arabia to soon know the thrill of the freedom of the bicycle, and wish them safe riding with the encumbrance of the abaya. More than this, I wish them the same freedoms that we in the West enjoy – and yes, there are still problems that need fixing, but we are far ahead on this.
I wish the women and other good people of the West the moral and intellectual courage to oil the wheels of progress so that they grind more swiftly and smoothly for women in other parts of the world. We should feel discomfort that we applaud a society for granting women so banal a right as the right to ride a bicycle.