Choosing your words carefully – Dr Kamal Subhi, coffee shops and ‘no more virgins’

SNL mocking Saudi study about women drivers (with Arabic subtitles) There’s always more than one way to say anything. This isn’t communications advice, but rather common sense pure and simple. There was nothing unusual in terms of the gist of a report on the effects of Saudi women driving which was handed to the Kingdom’s Shoura legislative Council. The document, written by Saudi academic Dr Kamal Subhi, basically said that women shouldn’t be allowed to drive (a basic document of what purports to be the report can be found here).

What unfortunately made headlines was the reasoning for Dr Subhi’s conclusions. Rather than rolling out the traditional lines of culture, of traffic congestion, or of legislative and practical difficulties, Dr Subhi was much more imaginative in his language.

To quote from the Associated Press:

The report by Kamal Subhi claims that allowing women to drive will threaten the country’s traditions of virgin brides, he said. The suggestion is that driving will allow greater mixing of genders and could promote sex.

Continuing the story, the UK’s Telegraph newspaper reported:

[The report] warned that allowing women to drive would “provoke a surge in prostitution, pornography, homosexuality and divorce”.

Within 10 years of the ban being lifted, it claimed, there would be “no more virgins” in the Islamic kingdom.

It pointed out that “moral decline” could already be seen in those other Muslim countries in which women are allowed to drive.

In the report Prof Subhi described sitting in a coffee shop in an unnamed Arab state where “all the women were looking at me”.

“One made a gesture that made it clear that she was available,” he said. “This is what happens when women are allowed to drive.”

The news report spread across the internet. Comments poured in online and through social media. Twitter users posted their own views using the hashtag #drkamalstudy. The news story even made its way onto US television, with Saturday Night Live including it in their material (watch the video below).

There’s no doubt that there are many in Saudi who are against women driving. However, today’s local news goes global in an instant. It goes without saying to me that the comments attributed to the report and to Dr Subhi do not do any good to the image of the Kingdom or its women.

The same point could have been made, but with language that was banal, boring, and staid. Unless you really believe that women driving will mean more divorces, extra-marital sex, and looser morals. With more and more attention being paid globally to local media, thanks to digital and social tools, there’s no such thing as a local story that will stay local. It’s often the case that people would double-speak, ie say one thing to one audience and pass off another message to a different audience (Yasir Arafat was known for his double speak in Arabic and English). You cannot do this today. Someone will always relay your message, translate it and then distribute to and through their own networks.

Prominent Saudi blogger Eman Al Nafjan wrote a piece on this issue for the English newspaper The Guardian.Saturday Night Live mocking Saudi study about women drivers (with Arabic subtitles) As envisioned, Dr Subhi blamed the Western media for twisting his message. To quote Eman:

“In this statement he writes that he knows the west, and his study follows international scientific standards no one can refute. He claims that he is so greatly respected by his western counterparts that they offered him citizenship. The problem with the international press report, he says, is that it was commissioned by a Saudi hater who used a miserable reporter to write a piece that unfairly summed up his 16-page paper into half a page.”

I’m a huge fan of the Kingdom, its people and cultures following the years I and my family lived there. While I may not agree with everything that the country’s government does I still have to respect the laws of the land. However, no one can defend the indefensible. And the reasoning and language used in this report just makes me cringe. It’s not what Saudi Arabia should be making the headlines for.

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