It goes without saying every modern country must have a way of keeping track of its citizens, whether for the purpose of employment, medical services provision, taxation, or security.
Current Saudi law states every person over the age of 15 must have a valid national identity card — this should not be an inherently challenging idea.
Why then, is there so much controversy over the fact that this requirement is now extended to women?
The requirement to carry government ID is not so much a privilege as it is a basic social requirement.
As societies become more complex and international security concerns increase, the extent to which governments ‘keep tabs’ on all of us can appear oppressive; it can truly seem like there is no such thing as privacy anymore.
For the most part, we accept a degree of surveillance and control in exchange for living in a safe, stable and prosperous society. So what message does it send, if we were to excuse the female half of the population from this requirement? It may be construed as a matter or courtesy or of the utmost belittlement.
On the one hand, this attitude may imply women are above both suspicion and need. On the other, exclusion from the requirement to be formally identified also negates a woman’s right to the services the state provides. Of course we could argue it does not imply either of those, but rather the fact that women are taken care of — administered, as it were — through an entirely different system, one of tradition and familial ties.
This, I think we will find, is at the heart of the opposition to the new legal requirement. There is a worry it will upset the way things are traditionally done, and somehow remove women from the protection and guardianship of their families. Of course, this is a kind interpretation.
There may also be darker connotations about the perceived need to keep women under male control — but let us assume for the moment, it is a matter of loss of guardianship.
As social agents with their own ID, are women cast adrift and forced to fend for themselves in the world?
It depends entirely on how much we trust our state, our families, our society — and our women. If we believe the state acts fairly and adherence to tradition cannot be forced, then there cannot be any possible problem with issuing ID cards to women.
If we believe women are strong in their own identity, there is no possible way this measure will materially alter their social role and behavior.
If we do not have trust, we must look carefully at why that might be. We must fix what is wrong — not try to obscure it through antiquated attitudes and restrictions.
Of course, having their own ID has a deeper symbolism for women. It represents their freedom; their social power as individuals. These are all excellent reasons to celebrate and uphold the current shift in legislation.
There is a danger however, in overstating these profound issues and neglecting the fact that the issuing of government ID for all adult members of society is, or should be, a simple matter of course.
(The writer is a columnist at Arab News, where this article was published on Nov. 19, 2012)