| October 30, 2013
Source: Women’s Media Center
Last Saturday, thousands gathered in Washington, DC, for a “Stop Watching Us” anti-surveillance rally. People are legitimately worried about the NSA reading our texts, chats, and emails, listening in on our phone conversations, and, ultimately, forcing us to regulate our speech out of fear. This is how democracies die. There are places, of course, where democracy doesn’t live in the first place. Like Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is already a full-blown surveillance state for more than half of its population.
Wajeha al-Huwaider, a tireless Saudi women’s rights campaigner, describes her country as “the world’s largest women’s prison.” At the same time that the “Stop Watching Us” rally was going on, more than 100 Saudi women across the kingdom ignored their government’s warnings, got behind the wheels of cars, and took quick, defiant spins. Saudi Arabia is the only country where women are banned from driving, not by law, but by the customary mandate of ultraconservative religious leaders who appear to know very little about actual women. As a cleric said last month: “Driving hurts women’s ovaries.” That sounds stupid, because it is. But there is nothing funny about it. Saudis live with the harshest gender apartheid of any nation state. Last year, the country even announced plans to build a woman-only city where educated women can pursue their professional ambitions—once they find someone to drive them there and back every day. The driving ban is a symptom of a deeply held misogyny that restricts women in multi-dimensional ways.
Pervasive mass surveillance is a way of life for Saudi women, who every day remain at the mercy of fathers, husbands, sons, drivers, and even complete strangers in order to get to work, school, or the market or to conduct even the most basic errands. It is expensive, because women have to pay their drivers’ salaries and housing. But the costs far exceed economic ones. It’s important to remember that right to drive, while vitally important, is also symbolic. It represents autonomy, privacy, freedom of movement, and so much more.