A Law Against Girls Riding Bikes?

UnknownTen-year-old Wadjda yearned to ride a bike so that she could race a neighbor boy. But Saudi law forbade it.

The girl is actually a fictional character from the film, “Wadjda.” But she likely represents plenty of real Saudi girls. They may not yearn for bicycles, especially, but they may have other forbidden dreams.

Six months after “Wadjda” premiered, Saudi law declared bicycling legal for girls and women. But the continuing restrictions reveal why it was ever banned.

Girls and women may now ride bikes for recreation. But not for transportation. And they must be accompanied by a male relative.

Women cannot drive cars for transportation, either. A “chaperone” cab driver may take women places — if they can afford it.

Relatedly, work outside the home is discouraged.

Human Rights Watch explains,

Under the “male guardianship system,” Saudi women need the permission of a male relative—husband, father or brother—to travel, accept employment, open a bank account, or access medical care. 

And women haven’t been able to change the system because they can’t vote or run for office until 2015. Even then they will be restricted to local elections. (And how do you run for office with your face covered?)

All to preserve a woman’s virtue, they say. So who’s protecting men’s virtue from all this stuff?

Funny how virtue overlaps with a lack of power and autonomy.

Which leads me to thinking about all those working to limit women’s power and autonomy in our own  backyard — to “preserve our virtue,” of course. These folks say a woman’s place is in the home. And they want to keep women and girls from accessing sex education, the HPV vaccine, contraception, and an abortion.

Lacking control over their bodies and reproductive lives, women will be less able to earn their own money. They will have more babies and become more dependent on their husbands. Especially if they also believe that their place is in the home.

Ten-year-old Wadjda’s bike is a symbol of independence. Plenty of us would like a chance to ride that bicycle.

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on September 20, 2013, in feminism, sexism and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 17 Comments.

  1. Caroline Staudenraus

    Patriarchy in Saudi Arabia has always shocked me; I recently read an article about a proposal that even female infants be required to cover their faces. This is upsetting because it conflicts with the traditional reason for covering oneself since a baby is in no position to need “preservation of virtue” or modesty. This sort of patriarchy makes men look bad because when a female must be controlled so persistently by a man, what does this say about male character? It suggests that the men of Saudi Arabia would want to rape a female infant if they saw her face or that all Saudi men on the streets would kidnap, rape, or hurt an “unchaperoned” female. In reality, such events are extremely rare and men are not naturally programmed to such evils. The same concepts apply to bike riding; why assume that a woman needs to be supervised? These girls did not choose their gender, but must suffer at the hands of their society anyways, which is a grave human rights violation.

  2. As a person who grow up in Iran, personally I have seen and heard a lot about these kind of laws against women so i don’t surprise. Most of these countries puts limitation on the development of women and legalizes them so that they are prohibited from aspiring for the presidency, becoming judges, becoming leaders, becoming educated in the universities and in inheritance. By reading this post I remembered that In Iran, women are not admitted to soccer games. Officially it’s because they are to be spared from the vulgar language and behavior of the male audience. But of course it is about sexism. Women are lower forms of human beings.In June 2005, the Iran’s national soccer team has an important game against Bahrain in the Azadi Stadium for the qualification of the World Cup. A group of Iranian girls and lovers of soccer dresses like boys and unsuccessfully attempts to enter in the stadium being arrested.these girls situation was similar to Wadjd’s situation so i came to this conclusion that unfortunately still in most of middle east countries women do not have freedom to choose and control several aspect of their personal live.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience.

      Instead of keeping women from going to soccer games because of men’s vulgarity, why don’t they discourage men’s vulgarity? Wonder if they let young boys attend even though they would be influenced by men’s vulgarity?

  3. I was always an active kid living in the Bay Area. I finally learned how to ride a two-wheeler when I was in fifth grade and asked my mom if I could ride my bike to school. I wasn’t allowed to, for fear of an adult male taking advantage of the situation. I argued that there were plenty of boys taking their bikes to school and I didn’t think it would be a big deal if I met up with them on the way. It’s harder to manipulate a young girl when there are other kids around, especially male kids. The notion that something could happen to a young girl, or even an adult woman, on her way to school, a job, or even meeting up with friends is considered so fundamentally dangerous that it impacts the way women view themselves. We are seen as weak and, literally, moving targets just asking to be harassed. It’s kept me from commuting to see friends in my own neighborhood. I’ve had people tell me that I should consider biking with another female, but all of my friends play into this notion and always drive to their destinations. So if I want to ride a bike late at night, I should go to the gym and stick to a cycling class or the gym bike? Where is the fun in that?

  4. This is ridiculous! I had some knowledge of this situation but thanks for such great details. It’s an unfair oppression that women all around the world don’t deserve. I know that men in the Middle East have a lot of wives which gives the women absolutely no power or real relationships. If I was one of those women I might have gotten used to my powerless life and given up on change. But hopefully those women don’t lose hope on one day having rights!

  5. Having a Middle Eastern background, I have heard a lot about these kind of laws and rules that severely suppress women’s freedom and make them completely inferior to the men in that society. The men in these countries say that these laws keep women “honorable” and “respectable,” but what they are really doing is forbidding women from any self-expression or success in life. It is impossible to imagine what life for women in Middle Eastern countries is like, especially in the remote villages where women are literally property of men and have no rights whatsoever. One can only hope that women’s rights in these areas will evolve sooner rather than later.

  6. Thanks for this great post! The title of the post immediately drew me in. Coming from an Indian background, I always found my dad telling me not to go out of the house past 9pm, and I always thought he was being overbearing. I realize this is such a small issue compared to what “Wadjda” ‘s situation is. I came to understand that my dad still goes by this rule because he is looking out for my safety and not because he is limiting my freedom. With that being said, I can’t even imagine how women are oppressed in day-to-day affairs such as riding a bike. Here in the United States, we still face the problem of women getting paid less than men. Although this is an important topic, the simple freedom of women stepping out of the house alone, and without a male figure, would be a step in the right way for women’s rights. I hope that countries in the Middle East can at least do this for women. I know it is especially hard because women can’t stand up for themselves in the Middle East, but hopefully as generations pass, laws can become a bit lenient in order for women to gain some sort of freedom.

  7. We have all heard the jokes about women drivers. I think that this is another example of male domination. This is another opportunity to suppress women within that region. I cannot understand why they do these things. I have two sisters and they would slug me if I tried to pull that. My mother raised me and she would not allow this kind of behavior. We have also heard of the glass ceiling so it is obvious that these males are terrified that their women will rise up and take their manhood from them. What they do not understand is that if they were secure in their manhood, they would not be so proactive against women.

  8. Very true, “The bike is a symbol of independence.” It’s all symbolic.

  9. You’re welcome. My point is not to draw a false equivalency between how women are treated in the USA and in Saudi Arabia, but to note that the driving forces behind varying degrees of discrimination are in actuality identical, i.e. that if a woman ventures outside of her home unaccompanied, she is seen by men as having given a kind of consent. It is seen as acceptable to try to approach her, to pester her, to behave intrusively. Or perhaps to imprison her, if she refuses to imprison herself willingly, depending on geography.

    A man approached thusly by a woman will quite possibly interpret her behavior as permanent license to harass, or he may rebuff her with little risk of having his privacy invaded in the future.

  10. We still are harassed. I am a non-driver and bicyclist and I live in a USA city of 25,000 people and I rarely see other female bicyclists. My visibility and “moving target” status has gotten me harassed at times by several male parties, sometimes repeatedly. Women who don’t blend into crowds are especially at risk for this sort of thing.

    I have also had things thrown at me and been spat upon, but I think that’s more of an anti-bicyclist thing. Not all countries are as in love with the automobile as this one.

    Also, there continues to be a strong push to keep unaccompanied women at home, that’s not over yet. It’s not legally enforced here, but one is always at risk for harassment, and many single women get worn down by it. And there is very little one can do about it legally, even reporting actual stalkers garners one little legal action against them, and can actually encourage them.

  11. Wow, I can’t even imagine.

    • Yeah, pretty unbelievable!

      In the US after the bicycle was invented feminist Susan B Anthony declared “I think [the bicycle] has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.” But women who rode unaccompanied by men were harassed — yes right here in the good ol’ US (mid-19th century).

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