With Saudi women finally getting the right to drive and the death of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, I’m reminded of the continued sexism and misogyny of our day.
While I’m pleased that women in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are not only allowed to drive cars, but are able to do so unescorted by a male, I’m annoyed by the idea that this part of the new Saudi King’s programme of ‘modernisation.’ KSA is technologically one of the most advanced countries in the world. The King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology was started in Riyadh back in 1977. According to Forbes, KSA is one of the world’s largest investors in technology today. And they have already launched several space satellites. A typical Saudi owns smart phones, tablets, laptops and an array of high-tech home entertainment systems. In terms of education – another indicator of modernisation – their primary and secondary schools were among the first in the Gulf States. Literacy rates in the Kingdom are now comfortably above the global average.
Yet for all of this, women were only given the right to vote in KSA in 2015 and now in 2017 the right to drive. Modernisation has been rather selective.
Of course, many countries, including some in the West, would also fail the fairness test when it comes to women’s rights relative to other developments.
With this news about Saudi women, I’ve been reminiscing on my driving experiences in Oman, the country next door. While Oman is a country where women could drive, few did. Usually, I was driving with David in the passenger seat and I only had to deal with the dangerous habits of other drivers, typically young, male, on their mobile phones, speeding and cutting across lanes of traffic as if at the Monaco Grand Prix. When I was in the car driving by myself, I also had to deal with male drivers pretending to drive me off the road, revving up their engines and blinking their lights behind me or driving closely alongside my car, looking at me and laughing. I should point out that this was often on the highway between home and work with a posted speed limit of 120 kilometres per hour. I knew this harassment was because of my gender. I felt I had landed on a planet where the men – on the road at least – never stopped being teenagers.
This brings me to Hugh Hefner. I’ve been cringing these past few days as glowing tributes have been paid to this professional womaniser. It has been said, mostly by the man himself and now in his obituaries, that he was largely responsible for the sexual revolution of the sixties. If that’s true, such a revolution according to Playboy magazine was for men only. In a complete and fair sexual revolution, men and women would have been featured in the magazine full frontal nude or engaging in sexual acts together. But we all know that Playboy and the persona that Hefner embodied were about the objectification and demeaning treatment of women. Where women weren’t treated like life-size dolls, they were reduced to bunny rabbits.
Having said this, I’ve also been comforted by the many writers and commentators – nearly all women – who have reminded the public of the man’s misogynistic remarks and his emotional abuse of women which continued until his death. Famous or infamous – the fact that there is a divide in opinion, like the views on women driving in the Gulf, illustrates that the struggle for equality has a long way to go.