Here is a thing I have done in my life: shared a fancy business lunch at Busboys and Poets with a group of Saudi school administrators. Here is a skill I lack and have shown no interest in developing in my life: pretending I don’t care about sexism. Guess how these two things combined!
So there I was sitting between about eight middle-aged Saudi men within hearing distance at our long table, listening to them insist that there was no ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia. I was pretty sure there was in practice if not in writing; Wajeha Al Huwaider’s famous protest video had made the rounds earlier that year, but without the internet on hand to prove me right, I let it slide.
“The reason women don’t drive is not that it’s illegal!” one man eagerly explained to me. “A woman could drive if she wanted, but she never has to! There is always a male relative willing to drive for her!” This was received with a round of enthusiastic agreement. Another man chipped in, “In our culture, women are like gems. We protect them and take care of them.” The others around him nodded in noble affirmation. Yes, they assented, men drove for women as a favor, and this was a way of protecting and showing kindness to women.
This is the way cultural narratives of gendered chivalry work: they foster dependence and propagate the idea that women are less capable, while masquerading as masculine generosity. There is a real connection between “This class of people must always help that class of people do this” and “that class of people is not capable of doing this.” Continue reading