Longtime feminist activist Gloria Steinem on Sunday compared some state-level efforts in the U.S. to limit “reproductive freedom” to the wide-ranging and intrusive controls on women in the male-dominated kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
The subjugation of women in the slowly evolving traditional Islamic society is “different in degree but not in kind from the opposition we see in this country in state legislatures to reproductive freedom as a basic human right,” said Ms. Steinem in a discussion at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, according to the Associated Press. “Part of the commonality for me comes out of the profound recognition that it’s all about controlling reproduction, and that means controlling women’s bodies.”
In Saudi Arabia, a conservative Muslim monarchy, women may not presently vote or drive, nor may they travel, work, marry, divorce or check into a public hospital without male permission.
In the World Economic Forum 2009 Global Gender Gap Report measuring gender equality, Saudi Arabia finished 130th out of 134 countries — and was the sole country rated 0 for female political empowerment.
Ms. Steinem, an early icon of the American feminist movement, made her comments in a post-screening discussion following the U.S. premiere of “Wadjda,” a pathbreaking Saudi film directed by Haifaa Al Mansour. The film is both the first Saudi feature directed by a woman and the first to be shot inside the kingdom.
“Because of regulations about the public mingling of women and men, [Ms. Al Mansour] had to direct outdoor scenes via a walkie-talkie, watching on a monitor from a parked van,” according to the AP.
“Wadjda” is the story of a spunky 10-year old Saudi girl (Waad Mohammed) who can’t help bumping against the tight restraints on female freedom in her rigidly sex-segregated Wahabbist society, where even the bicycle she yearns to race is feared as a threat to traditional feminine modesty.
There have been glimmers of incipient progress toward modern notions of gender equality in Saudi Arabia, where in 2011 King Abdullah promised political reforms which would extend to women the rights to vote and run for office starting in 2015.
But Ms. magazine, the flagship feminist journal co-founded by Ms. Steinem herself, couldn’t fully disguise its skepticism in noting one such “baby step” for women’s rights in the dynastic desert domain ruled by the House of Saud.
“Women are now allowed to ride bikes in Saudi Arabia — with a few tiny restrictions,” Ponta Abadi archly noted in a Ms. Blog post. “They’re only allowed to bike if they are: in a restricted area, with a man, have covered their bodies completely under the rules of Islamic abaya, biking strictly for entertainment (not transportation) and staying away from places where groups of young men are gathered in order to ‘avoid harassment.’”
Somebody must have forgotten to tell the recalcitrant remnant of the American patriarchy as it schemes to roll back reproductive freedoms: If you want to control women’s bodies, you must first control their bikes.