ted talks: manal al-sharif: a saudi woman who dared to drive

Tuesday, October 8:   Today I had to sit and listen as one of my Saudi students did a TED Talk presentation about “Manal al-Sharif, a Saudi woman who dared to drive.”  My student, a female, criticized this woman, who dared to challenge a society’s rules about women driving.  I believe Manal al-Sharif is to be applauded, but I felt sick when I heard this student criticize Manal on the grounds that “the traffic in Saudi is really crazy and a woman shouldn’t drive because it’s not safe, or, that a Saudi woman shouldn’t drive because she should be treated like a queen or a princess, or because our religion says a woman shouldn’t drive.”  Hmmm.  I didn’t know that cars were around when the Quran was written!  My student even went on to say this woman is a betrayal to the Saudi people and to her country.  The male Saudi students in the class also agreed strongly with my student that a woman shouldn’t drive for other equally ridiculous reasons that I can’t even remember now.

I highly recommend this TED Talk:  TED Talks: Manal al-Sharif: A Saudi woman who dared to drive

Manal al-Sharif says in this TED talk:  There was this official study that was presented to the Shura Council — it’s the consultative council appointed by the king in Saudi Arabia — and it was done by a local professor, a university professor.  He claims it’s done based on a UNESCO study. And the study states, the percentage of rape, adultery, illegitimate children, even drug abuse, prostitution in countries where women drive is higher than in countries were women don’t drive.

As far as I know, Saudi Arabia is the last country in the world where women don’t drive.  Thus this “university professor’s study” has to be talking about ALL the other societies in the world when he cites his statistics.

My Asian students were up in arms with this students’ claims and opinions and had some good questions for the Saudi student: Why did Manal get arrested and thrown in jail if there is no law prohibiting women from driving?  Because of tradition, they answered.  It’s just not done.

I argued that in Cairo, where the traffic is the most chaotic and horrible of any country I’ve visited, Muslim women drive all the time.

It’s sad and incredibly frustrating to me that even students who have come to America to study still continue to think in such a backward way and have not been even one bit enlightened during their education and stay in America.

All of these arguments, and more equally ridiculous ones, that I’ve heard recently, are all lame reasons given by a male-dominated society to hold on to their power and keep women as second-class citizens.  What continues to frustrate me, after living two years in Oman, and now teaching Saudi students in America, is that the Arab women I’ve met from these countries continue to make excuses as to why they allow this subjugation to continue.

At least, after spending two years in Oman, I can appreciate the more progressive thinking of the Sultan in allowing women in his country to have more freedom than in neighboring Saudi Arabia.

Finally, I applaud strong, forward-thinking women like Manal al-Sharif, for trying to break taboos and change a ferociously male-dominated society.

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10 thoughts on “ted talks: manal al-sharif: a saudi woman who dared to drive

  1. And yet each woman has to make her choice, doesn’t she? The sadness is that most often their choices are made out of ignorance or fear. But that is their culture, and is it ours to fight that?

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    1. It’s not ours to fight it, Carol, but I don’t have to be quiet about it as long as we’re on American soil. When I was in Oman, I had to respect their culture; here I feel free to speak my mind! Thank God!

  2. I suspect your overseas students are not minded to do much more than learn the language, and the whole idea of changing their values is just too threatening, especially when they are funded by patriarchs. There will be one or two rebels no doubt, but identifying and supporting them is probably nigh on impossible unless they feel strong enough to identify themselves.

    Do you get the opportunity to discuss different cultural values in your classes? It seems to me that there might be scope for challenging some of their assumptions (eg the woman who said driving was against the teachings of the Koran) by inviting her fellow students to spot the illogicality of her argument. Or am I being naive? Is their English up to it?

    I share your frustrations at such closed minds, but perhaps you could turn the situation into a challenge, and use the fact that you have a captive audience to discuss relative values in a non-threatening way. No society is perfect and criticisms of the US way of life are just as valid as those of Saudi culture. Perhaps you could ask them to list the positives of both.

    Thanks for the link to Manal al-Sharif’s speech. I found it very inspiring. I’m off to Jordan shortly and am hoping to learn more about Arabic societies. One of the shortcomings of holidays, especially escorted ones, is that you get little opportunity to see how ‘the other half lives’. Your Middle Eastern students are very privileged in that they have sponsors who can afford to send them to the US for education. Do they have any understanding of this? Why the US and not Saudi Arabia or other Arabic countries? What is so special about the ability to speak good English and why? How do their maids, drivers, agricultural workers etc access education? I sense there is a whole area of discussion here just waiting to happen. Having said that I do hope your college is not so dependent on foreign students that it constrains your ability to challenge some of your students’ assumptions.

    Good luck!

    1. Hi Vee, Yes, we get plenty of opportunities to discuss differing cultural values in our class. Of course, almost all Asian cultures think the Saudi values are ridiculous and they’re always fighting back against the Saudi ideas. I bet the Saudis have never had to listen to anyone disagree with them before!

      Actually this is the most advanced level Speaking and Listening class, so both their speaking and listening levels are up to high levels. It makes for some very interesting and controversial discussions. I just feel sorry for the poor Asians who are naturally quiet and don’t feel confident to speak up when the Saudis are so outspoken and brash and seem to take over the class. Our college is luckily very open and we’re encouraged to discuss anything and everything. I daresay these students have never discussed the issues of infidelity, superstition, drug and alcohol use (and any other topic you can think of) that we discuss in my classroom. Don’t worry, we are discussing every subject under the sun. It’s just too bad the Saudis are in the majority and so self-righteous because they pretty much ram their societal values down everyone’s throats. Our college is not too dependent on foreign students and is now trying to move the demographics back to a more even distribution of cultures.

      Thanks so much for your good wishes! 🙂

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