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Driving for Your Rights: An Example of Consumption as Freedom

Today’s Wall Street Journal has an interview with Manal al-Sharif, the Saudi woman who defied authorities by driving on June 17, 2011, posted the video on youtube, and lived to tell the story.  Since her brave act, al-Sharif has been awarded the Oslo Freedom Forum’s Vaclav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent–an honor that did not endear her to the Saudi hierarchy.  That was especially true when she gave her acceptance speech, which is here.

I think there are a couple of instructive lessons from Sharif’s story and at least one lesson in Creative Dissent we can all act upon.  First, I just want to point out the contradiction between this story and the long-standing feminist wisdom (dating since the publication of Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique, 50 years old this year) that says “consumption is, by definition, disempowering for women.”  This canard, frequently applied with the broadest of brushes, ignores many women’s rights moments, such as this Saudi one, that involve the right to consume (“consumption” referring to the acquisition and use of goods, not the expenditure of money).  Sharif’s act is comparable in many ways to Rosa Parks refusing to sit in the back of the bus.

There are times, as with Saudi Arabia’s ban on women driving, when the access to consumer goods promises real freedom.  Many products of the past, from bicycles to contraceptives, have been extremely important to the development of further rights by providing mobility or birth control or whatever.  We need to develop a feminist approach to consumption that can distinguish among products and not simply denounce “consumption” in a generic way.

The second lesson has to do with the interrelationship between economic freedom and human rights.  Ms. Sharif quite rightly sees the freedom to drive as a human rights issue.  However, it is also an economic issue because (1) it involves access to goods and (2) mobility is necessary to economic autonomy.  It is no coincidence that in a country where women can’t drive, the employment rate for females is only 12% and the percentage of businesses owned by women is only 5%!  These prohibitions are as much about controlling women economically as they are about sexuality.

What do I mean “sexuality”?  What has that got to do with driving a car?  In places like Saudi Arabia where women’s mobility and appearance is severely controlled, the consistent reasons given for keeping women under wraps–or under lock and key, as the case may be–are (1) they need to be protected from the violent actions of men outside the home or (2) they need to be watched so they don’t engage in illicit sex.  Indeed, Ms. Sharif reports that her action took place on a day of protest when all Saudi women were called to drive, to prove that, in fact, they would not all be raped.  Because the constant refrain was, “‘there are wolves on the street, and they will rape you if you drive.'”  This constant threat, implicit or explicit, of sexual violence is the most basic tool that traditional patriarchy uses to keep women in place.

Note that the threat of rape is literally made in a punitive way.  It’s not treated as a criminal behavior or a disturbed act, as rape is now understood in the developed world.  Nor is the rapist even necessarily seen as motivated by lust, though the argument, as Sharif points out in her speech, is that men cannot control their “instincts” and so women must stay inside.  But the threat of rape is also invoked as if it is the perfectly normal response of a man who sees a woman out of place.

Now, what is it we can act upon?  Sharif worked for Aramco and her boss was part of the effort to bully her about the driving.  Aramco is wholly owned by the Saudis, so there is probably not much that can be done to persuade them to take a different stand on women’s issues.  But, in the future, I think some consideration needs to be given to putting pressure on companies who operate in places where the government is cruel toward women.  If the international diplomatic community can’t or won’t intervene, then perhaps economic pressure would do more.  I am thinking here on the order of the economic pressure put to bear on the government of South Africa to end apartheid.  The international finance community played an important part in this, but the pressure began with a grassroots international campaign to put an end to this horrid racial structure.  I don’t see any reason why the same thing could not occur for women.

This then brings me to another point about consumption and freedom.  We lost some important political leverage in the mid-20th century when feminism started characterizing consumption as this passive, brain-dead thing that was inevitably part of  women’s oppression.  Previous generations had made powerful use of consumer pressure on behalf of women’s rights.  We should bring that power tool back out.  Women control more than 80% of consumer decisions in the “advanced nations” and 66% in the emerging markets.  This represents a substantial market and, therefore, a significant potential source of power.  But as long as we keep thinking of consumption in monolithic, 1950s terms, we can’t use it.


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