Oct. 19, 2014 by Darius
What a difference 850 miles makes. That’s the approximately distance between the Kurdish city of Kobani in Syria and Riyadh, capital of Saudi Arabia. One thing in particular stands out between them: the role of women. It’s about as far apart as one can get within the Muslim world.
Two articles that appeared in the same Wall Street Journal (October 18-19, 2014) illustrate the difference very well. The first article details how well car service apps, like Uber, are doing in Saudi Arabia. There, 80% of their customers are women. Why do Saudi women use Uber so much? Because Saudi women still aren’t allowed to drive, and Uber provides more convenient and more upscale service than taxis.
Meanwhile, according to another article in the same newspaper, Kurdish women are fighting on the front lines against ISIS fighters. It is even estimated that up to a third of Kurdish fighters in Kobani are female. Kurdish women have long enjoyed great empowerment and independence; in the 1920s, British author Agatha Christie, accompanying her husband on an archaeological dig in Syria, commented on the fierce, no-nonsense character of Kurdish women.
Yet the Kurds and the Saudis ostensibly follow the same religion, Sunni Islam. The main Kurdish women’s brigade fighting in Kobani is even named after a martyr – as it happens, a female schoolteacher who was killed by ISIS.
Where does the deep difference spring from? In short, culture. There is nothing in the Qur’an (which is Saudi Arabia’s official constitution) that prohibits women from driving; there is not even any injunction in the Qur’an that women must cover their hair, simply that women (and men) should dress modestly. Yet burqa-clad Saudi women need to spend hundreds of dollars a month on car services while Kurdish women fight and die alongside men to defend their homeland.
Admittedly, the Saudi women and the Kurdish women are on the ends of the spectrum seen across the Muslim world. It’s important to remember, though, that while the extremes make the news, most Muslim women actually live in the middle. It’s also important to remember that social conventions that are described, erroneously, in the Western press as Islamic are often, in fact, cultural and have no specific religious basis at all.
For more on either of these two stories, see
“Uber’s Most Avid Users: Saudi Women,” The Wall Street Journal, October 18-19, 2014, p.B1, http://online.wsj.com/articles/ban-on-women-drivers-in-saudi-arabia-gives-taxi-apps-a-boost-1413456923 and “Kurdish Women Fight on Front Lines Against Islamic State,” The Wall Street Journal, October 18-19, 2014, p.A1, http://online.wsj.com/articles/kurdish-women-fight-on-front-line-against-islamic-state-1413580188