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Keeping (Saudi and Skverer) Women Out of the Driver’s Seat

Today is the day that women in Saudi Arabia are taking to the streets — behind the wheel of their husbands’ cars, that is. June 17 is the day selected by women’s rights activist Manal Al-Sharif for women to get out there and protest the kingdom’s ban on women driving. Last month, after Al-Sharif posted a video of herself driving, she was arrested and jailed for nine days.

Today, women nationwide are expected to be driving in protest “to see if they get thrown in the clink en masse,” wrote New York Times Op-Ed columnist Maureen Dowd.

Even billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, known as “the Arabian Warren Buffet” for being the country’s richest man, is calling for a lift of the ban, Dowd wrote. After all, he told her:

We’re not calling for diplomatic relations with Israel. We’re just asking for ladies to drive the car. Please, give me a break. Even in North Korea, women can drive. It’s a joke. The issue of women driving can happen tomorrow morning because it’s not really an issue at all. Frankly speaking, we need strong political leadership to do it and get it behind us. What are we waiting for?

Just an hour north of New York City, the Hasidic enclave of New Square bans women from driving or even walking on the same side of the street as men, as Andrew Tobin wrote in last week’s Forward. Steven I. Weiss wrote in these pages back in 2005 about when New Square’s rabbis formalized their community’s custom of banning women from behind the wheel.

It’s hard to understand why — or how — the women of New Square put up with it. They live in a suburban area where one needs to drive to get anywhere outside the immediate village. True, it provides a livelihood for my sister-in-law, who is a Hasidic woman of a slightly more liberal persuasion and works as a private car service driver for Skverer women, driving them to area shopping malls, airports and simchas in Brooklyn. It’s easy to understand why the men in power in New Square, under the guise of religious fealty, want to ensure that women stay disempowered and unable to get very far. It’s just hard to understand why the women put up with it.

Sisterhood contributor Rebecca Schischa penned a trenchant blog post last year in her blog about how this driving ban is an odd shared bond between some Muslims and some Jews.

Now the question is: will there be an uprising of women claiming the right to drive in New Square as in Saudi Arabia?

Dowd wrote in her recent column about what happened to the Saudi women who in 1990 protested their country’s ban:

The fundamentalist clerics went into overdrive, branding the women “whores” and “harlots.” They lost their jobs and were harassed. Their passports were revoked and they had to sign papers agreeing not to talk about the drive. When I interviewed some of them 12 years later, they were only beginning to shake off the vengeful backlash.

Given the terrible attack on Aron Rottenberg, the man severely burned last month allegedly by aides of the Skverer Hasidic rebbe, who found intolerable his desire to pray at a synagogue other than the community’s main prayer center and waged a campaign of intimidation against him and his family, it is hard to imagine New Square’s women taking to the streets and driving. Given the terrible price that Rottenberg and his family have paid for so innocuous-seeming an infraction, it is easy to imagine that the women do not dare.

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