Saudi Arabia is in the news this week after an official stated the country would not provide support to female nationals hoping to compete in the impending London Olympic Games. The statement came just weeks after a Saudi prince claimed women could represent the country at the Games.
These controversies are the latest in what has become a series of mixed messages on issues to do with women emanating from Saudi Arabia over the last 12 or so months. Last September the country’s King Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz Al Saud announced that women would not only be able to vote, but also that they could run, in municipal elections. He also announced that they would no longer be excluded from appointment to the country’s unicameral consultative council, the Majlis Ash-Shura (the King appoints the Shura’s 150 members).
In the same month, King Abdullah overturned a sentence of ten lashes given to a woman found guilty of driving. Although quashing the sentence sent one message, the fact that there was a sentence in the first place was in itself a conflicting message: far from a routine occurrence, it was in fact the first time such a penalty had been given. Officially, there is no law banning women from driving in Saudi Arabia. Driving without a locally issued license is however illegal and such licenses are not issued to women. As a result female drivers are routinely arrested (though not previously given court-ordered reprimands).
The Women to Drive movement was born in 1990 when dozens of women drove through the Saudi capital Riyadh to protest the ban. The women were imprisoned for a day, some had their passports confiscated and some lost their jobs.
In 2011 the campaign was revived on Facebook. The Facebook campaign called for women to begin driving on 17 June. A number of women commenced driving before that date and at least three were consequently detained for short periods. On 17 June somewhere between 30 and 50 women took to their steering wheels. It is believed police were instructed against arresting women drivers that day. There were however a number of arrests in the following weeks.
Described as a statement of solidarity with Women to Drive, M.I.A.’s song and video for ‘Bad Girls’ was released in January this year (a shortened version of the song had appeared previously on Vicki Leekx, a 2010 online mixtape).
The song and video are together an apt anthem for the movement, and they have certainly gained it more exposure. Musically, Arabic motifs are prominent. The lyrics are full of bravado, fatalism and car references. M.I.A.’s vocal delivery is typically deadpan and threatening.
Filmed in Morocco, the video fetishises cars and puts women centre stage in the normally male domain of drag racing. This is all set against a classically Arabian backdrop of desert and keffiyeh (Arabic male headdress). The video appropriates referents of male power – cars, guns, aggressive sexuality – for women. The video’s women are confident, but this is not the hyper-sexualised female confidence seen in so many other (particularly hip-hop) videos.
While the men are watching the women perform, their gaze is spectatorial rather than objectifying or controlling. The men perform occasionally too – both as backup dancers and horsemen. Although widely applauded for this empowerment via appropriation, M.I.A. has also been criticised for cultural appropriation and for falling into Arab stereotypes.
I love this song (and video) because 1) it is quality stuff, 2) it is really, really cool and 3) it is socially/politically powerful without banging anyone over the head or resorting preaching. That a song (or anything else) can be culturally exciting (aka cool), enjoyable and have political/moral force is easy to forget. All too often politically engaged artists sacrifice the quality of their medium when they want to convey a serious message. Not only is that a shame on a creative level, but it is also ineffective from a political standpoint – people are rarely receptive to shrill sermonising. M.I.A. reminds us how it’s done.