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Why can’t women in Saudi Arabia drive?

Published May 25, 2011 05:59am


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In recent times, the Middle East region has been in the news pretty regularly, but perhaps, no reason for making the headlines has been as bizarre as this one: A woman was arrested because she decided to drive a car on the streets of Saudi Arabia, and then posted a video of herself driving.

On the 23rd of May, the Associated Press reported that “Saudi authorities have re-arrested an activist who defied a ban on female drivers in the conservative kingdom. Manal al-Sherif was accused of “violating public order” and remanded in custody for five days while the case is investigated, a security official said.

Sherif launched a campaign against the ban last week by posting a video on the internet of herself behind the wheel in the eastern city of Khobar. A Facebook page called “Teach me how to drive so I can protect myself” urged all Saudi women to drive on 17 June, and drew 12,000 supporters before it was removed. The campaign's Twitter account also was deactivated.

Najla Al-Hariri, another woman who dared to defy the oppressive law and drove around the city claims that there is no enforceable law which prevents women from driving, rather it is only a cultural and religious norm. Tariq Al Maeena, a prominent Saudi writer stated in an article that it is only some fundamentalist scholars who oppose women drivers.

If one explores further into ‘religious’ ruling, one learns that during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammed (PBUH) when there were no cars, and horses and camels were the only means of transport, and the blessed members of the Prophet’s family, his wives and daughters used them. In fact the Prophet (PBUH) commented in an authentic hadith of Al-Bukhari, “The best women who ride camels are the women of Quraysh.”

That said, the ban on women driving in KSA is indeed mystifying, when women from every other Muslim country are driving freely on the roads. Certainly, it does not make them any less ‘Muslim’ than their Saudi counterparts, who it seems have been hard done by a law which has roots, at best, in a culture full of prejudice against women.

Isobel Coleman author of the book Paradise Beneath Her Feet, senior fellow for US foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, revealed that in Saudi Arabia, at one time, girls were not allowed to attend school. In 1962, in an agreement with the United States, the then king allowed females to get formally educated at school. Now, nearly half a century later, in the Kingdom, 63 per cent of all college graduates are women.

In a place where more women than men are graduating from college, naturally a sizeable per centage of people in the work-force will be females. A driving ban such as this means that a male would be ferrying the woman to and back from work, to the mall, even for groceries! Either a salaried driver must be hired (remember women using public transport such as buses in KSA is still taboo), or taxis must be hailed or the woman must be at the mercy of her husband, brother, son or father to take her around.

A skill such as that of driving must never be underestimated – it is immensely useful in day to day life, it can be used in dire situations, and can even save lives! How many people reading this can disagree to the fact that a woman who drives is an added bonus for any family, and is in fact a great relief to her male counterparts? Moreover, it grants women a measure of independence and subsequently confidence in their own abilities.

Scholars who have given the religious ruling that disallows women to drive claim that a woman driving would be open to harassment, sexually and otherwise, and maybe even abuse. One wonders though – is there any guarantee a woman will not be harassed at the workplace? Since a threat such as that obviously exists, is it correct to pull out women from the workforce altogether?

Another example one can cite here is of the Grand Mosque in Makkah, where during circumambulation around the Ka’aba, men and women often come in close contact. ‘Eve-teasing’ or in plain terms, sexual harassment happens to thousands of women inside the Haram. Does the religious police ban women from entering the mosque altogether? No, of course not.

Arab News of Saudi Arabia ran an article titled “Not all Saudi women seeking to drive cars” which talks about how not having to look for a parking space and the luxury and comfort of having a driver means Saudi women prefer to be driven around. However, people in Saudi Arabia refuse to buy that as one reader indignantly states in a comment: [Are you kidding?! this is real life! there are single moms, divorced women, daughters with father who are sick, wives who need to care for their husbands, mothers who have to attend to their children’s school meetings, Muslim sisters who just want to go to the masjid to listen to Quran!] sic.

The Kingdom, in recent times has seen a lot of development. From the trains that are being built to connect the sites of pilgrimage, to the great amount of construction that is being carried out in cities like Riyadh and Jeddah, and even Madinah and Makkah (where the clock tower which will break several construction records is under construction) the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has forayed ahead in many areas. Yet this one policy still remains, even after it has been challenged many times by Saudi women in the past. Is it a form of sexism and male chauvinism at its worse, or is it really a law to protect women?

As always, the social media has seen thousands of people voicing their opinions and a great number of them support Manal Al-Sherif’s cause. Considering the fact that Facebook was instrumental in over-throwing the regime of a dictator in the same region, one hopes that this time round too, oppression, (though in another form) will be defeated.

Mehmudah Rehman is a freelance writer based in Dubai who blogs at Notes to Self.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily represent the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.


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Mehmudah Rehman is a Dubai-based mother to three, teacher by profession and writer by passion. Cricket mad, she trained with the UAE National Women's Cricket team but never made the playing 11.

She blogs at

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (58) Closed

Mohammad Masood May 25, 2011 11:34am
The reason women are not allowed to drive is that a policeman cannot ask a women to identify herself by taking out her veil nor a women driver can be asked not to cover her face while driving.Hence it would not be possible to control crimes. Under the veil you could have a criminal man or a women. So until Saudi have a female traffic police force, allowing women to drive should not be allowed.
Billu Bhayankar May 25, 2011 11:37am
I read somewhere they have equal rights for women in Islam ??????
Taimur May 25, 2011 11:45am
If women can ride camels in saudi arabia why can't they drive cars?
umair May 25, 2011 11:49am
i don't know why are you making this breaking news ... i accept all the rules and regulation in Saudi Arabia by heart .. look at the crime ratio in Saudi Arabia and then compare to Pakistan .peoples are not able to do a part of any crime for it rules and regulation . i wish it would be implemented in Pakistan.
Shakeel.Quddus May 25, 2011 12:02pm
The Saudi kingdom once again caught in the Catch 22 position. Caught between the weight of the history and demand of the modern industrial world, the old navigators had to figure out how to pass through the uncharted territory. The modern world offers incredible temptations, for example, the woman's right to own a car. She could pick and choose between a B.M.W. and a Ford Mustang. This is called individual freedom, an idea whose time has almost come. Yes, in the Middle-East. We are witnessing an incrdible transition between an old world and the emergence of the new world. At last.
N.Pervez May 25, 2011 12:06pm
If a women driving a car in a Muslim country is sexually harrassed than it is the fault of the Parents and the Religious Scholars for not educating the men to respect women no matter who they are. A muslim country should be the safest place for a women travelling or driving alone because of the values that Islam teaches, yet we do not follow our religion but only supress the women folk as if that is the only thing we muslims are suppose to do to prove we are Muslims. Its a shame our Scholars are preaching this division.
Mustafa May 25, 2011 12:11pm
I have lived in Saudi Arabia for about eight years, and in my experience, women prefer having someone else drive.
Imran Wahid May 25, 2011 12:45pm
I am agree with Mohammad Masood, Realy strategic move of saudi Government, All of these things happened in western nations. so they handle the situation period to period
Ib May 25, 2011 12:45pm
lol...what a warped rationale !
Bilal May 25, 2011 12:47pm
Very Wel Said Mr. Pervez. We always hear and read about Parda of Women. But never heard a single word about Teaching men how to respect women, Other than his Mom, Sis, Daughter, & Wife. Islam is "Religion of Nature" and i am clear about one thing if any restriction imposed by our So Called Scholar is against the rule of Nature than its not the Islam Preached by Our Beloved Prophet (S A W W ) Its Their personal Point of view.
Huma May 25, 2011 01:02pm
Very well said @ Mohammad Masood! Appreciated your answer.
Smart Khan May 25, 2011 01:03pm
Why cant women in France wear face veils?
vijay May 25, 2011 01:04pm
That is not true. All women must identify themselves to the immigration officers at the airport by removing their naqab. There are no female immigration officers to do that.
Rahim Ali May 25, 2011 01:28pm
Then the solution is not to ban women drivers but to induct female cops into the system. Really this whole anti-woman thing in Saudia and also in come parts of our country is disgusting. Where do these people they came from if not the womb of a woman? Would they rather have been conceived solely by their fathers?
Vipul May 25, 2011 01:37pm
What ridiculous excuses are put forward by some people in support of the ban! Wonder what's more disgraceful: The ban itself or the mentality of people who support this outdated law?
Ameen Khan May 25, 2011 01:54pm
Is it such a big probs that its debated and being written about so fevereshly ? Driving or no driving what it will contribute real terms nothing .Pardon me , we have so many other issues in our part of the world .Illiteracy, hunger , and health and so on and so forth . First we should have basics then we think of the nittygritty. Thanks
Sharma May 25, 2011 01:57pm
Women in Saudi Arabia in particular and in most of Muslim countries in general have far less freedom as compared to women in Non- Muslim countries such as USA, UK, Europe , Israel and India. Why ?
Sabih Zafar Ullah May 25, 2011 02:11pm
I am totally in favor of ban on women drivers. Not because of any religious reason, but the way they drive...
Asghar May 25, 2011 02:12pm
Ha ha ha. You make me laugh. Let a teenage girl cross the street in Karachi after dark and see how safe she is in a 'uslim country. Karachi is notorious for gang rapes on young womwn.
adnan May 25, 2011 02:28pm
This is something to pride for Saudi women that their men are responsible to drive them to malls and everywhere they want, what a luxury they have. And who are we to ask "Why can’t women in Saudi Arabia drive?" - Don't we have our own life to think about it?
Irshian May 25, 2011 03:02pm
Well said. i can't have said it better. This ban shows the hypocrisy in Saudi and with the clergies.
Khan May 25, 2011 04:15pm
@Sabih ... lol i totally agree with you!!
Blognostic May 25, 2011 04:39pm
That is their way of empowering muslim women ;)
fN May 25, 2011 04:42pm
There are bigger issues running in the middle east right now that need to be settled first (like stopping genocide in Syria to name one). Let us not create more problems than they already have. Especially, lets not create pretext for another "regime change".
Kamran Basharat May 25, 2011 06:15pm
Your article expresses your viewpoint and I am supportive of equality and right of women to drive, but please note that your quote of thousands of Eve Teasing iside Haram is far from truth, try no to make baseless assertions.
khalid May 25, 2011 06:49pm
I don't see any problem with women behind the wheels, the system needs to be changed and it is just a matter of time.
Ahsan7979 May 25, 2011 07:07pm
All the Pakistanis commenting on this forum should look into whats happening in Pakistan(I am a Pakistani) and try fixing that first before poking their nose into Saudi law...
Majid May 25, 2011 08:21pm
Why can't saudi women drive? simple.. FIRST LET THE SAUDI MEN LEARN HOW TO DRIVE!!
AK Syed May 25, 2011 09:27pm
Even in a theocratic state of Iran, the women are allowed to drive ...
Fazil Kann May 25, 2011 10:27pm
The real issue is one of power. Apart from education, the Saudi women need two other rights to be empowered: the right to drive and the right to vote. Both are denied to them.
Altan May 25, 2011 10:35pm
I wonder if this would be a small problem if this directly affected your mobility. A nation who's leadership is answerable to no one is the one that is most ripe for change. Shameful that some people get their power by creating then oppressing the weak.
Sandeep May 25, 2011 10:56pm
Then according to you my dear, all male politicians, male police, so-called religious male should be replaced by women because the way these males run the country will destroy the whole world without exception.
taz May 25, 2011 11:14pm
we have slightly more pressing issues at hand in the world than this.. dont you think? sorry we'll talk abt this when we get the time..
saad May 25, 2011 11:57pm
Vijay is wrong. In Saudi they have female immigration officers at the airport inspecting women
Razzaq May 26, 2011 12:19am
Sounds so valid considering what goes on in Pakistan under the cover of VEIL.
james miller May 26, 2011 01:41am
Can women in saudi arabia ride camels? Are they permitted to ride bicycles? how about skate boards or roller blades? if so, they should take all of the above means to show their defiance.
Anwar May 26, 2011 04:59am
The ban is indeed mystifying. Yet I do not think it is a very big issue. It is just a question of time...
Sudhir May 26, 2011 06:10am
There will be not crime at all if no one will get out of his house
sudhir May 26, 2011 06:11am
sudhir May 26, 2011 06:12am
and which is never going to happen in KSA
Omee May 26, 2011 08:45am
I was born and raised in saudi Learnt to drive there....alot of people dont know this but saudi arabia has the amongst the highest accident mortality rates in the 3 i think....driving there is already insane....they have excellent gas...and nice roads....however not soo nice drivers....if they let women is going to become much worse....there are gonna be accidents left and right....dont get me all for women driving....but they should improve the current situation on the roads first
Sabz May 26, 2011 08:59am
And you would think KSA is the best place to find most pious muslims following the foot steps of Muhammad (P.B.U.H).
yusuf May 26, 2011 09:06am
Worried about a country thousands of miles away....have we settled all our issues here in Pakistan????
Arif May 26, 2011 05:02pm
Every country has their own law. Let local people decided what they want. Why can’t we force France to allow wearing Hijab for Muslim females?????? That one is more important than “Why can’t women in Saudia Arabia drive?”
sultana May 27, 2011 01:31am
Mr. Adnan, We are not talking about luxury over here. We are talking about "need". What about a poor widow who has to go out get medicine for her sick child in middle of the night???
Madan May 27, 2011 10:35am
@ Sharma if burning women with their husbands, aborting girls in the womb, and abusing women as a sex slave is a freedom. Enjoy your freedom not one muslim country is looking for that kind of freedom... 50 % of the kids born in USA is out of wed lock you cal this freedom and respect for women...bravo.... YOU HAVE A your MEANING OF FREEDOM IN YOUR PERCEPTION AS MUSLIMS HAVE DIFFERENT. peace..
Muhammad May 27, 2011 05:15pm
I think you forgot that france is democratic country where laws are being made by the people represetatives whereas in Saudi Arabia there is kingship people have have say in enacting laws
Muhammad May 27, 2011 05:17pm
really ! we read daily the stories of their piousness how lavishly they live their lives
Muhammad May 27, 2011 05:29pm
Because they decided so through their representatives in Parliment remember france is a democratic country whereas Saudi Arabia has kingship common people have no say even in their on daily affairs
hassan May 28, 2011 08:46pm
Usman May 28, 2011 08:48pm
:D:D:D Well said
hassan May 28, 2011 09:02pm
I have seen in qatar, dubai and bharain....where womens can drive and seriously they the worst traffic issues thn saudi arabia......i think ksa should find another alternative for transportation for women ..but allow all..!!! god bless KSA
chanthu May 29, 2011 01:46pm
Dear All Just to note that Saudi woman are not allowed to vote or participate in politics and not allowed to drive. However amongst this social problems there are hopes of progress. Captain Hannadi Zakariyah Hindi is the first Saudi female pilot to fly in the kingdom. After an advanced flight training program in neighbouring Jordan Ms. Hindi joined prince Al Waleed's private airlines company. Though this is the path breaking achievement of the first accredited female pilot, she will still need to be driven by a male support to the airport. I think the matter of woman to get the driving license is very important now a days as they have to go daily basis for work or the normal routine activities connected with daily life.
hyder May 29, 2011 08:14pm
Pitty for the ladies in kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Hope one day they too would be given the right to drive, open account with a bank and travel abroad without their males... these are very basic human freedom .
Rationalist May 31, 2011 12:13am
Only recently they got the right for schooling. Now let them get the right to shed their veils then they can fight for a driving license.
Sarah May 31, 2011 05:07am
I am a woman and live in the USA. I have many rights and freedoms and do not believe that being able to transport myself and my family to wherever I may need to go is asking too much. Without equal freedom between a man and a woman, there can never be respect, because you are not on a similar level. How can a grasshopper respect me? It lives in fear or reverance, but never respect. As a group of united people living in the same world, it is long past due for equal rights to be afforded to every man and woman living on this planet, regardless of religion.
Sami Jun 07, 2011 02:18am
If a women can walk on streets, go to malls for shopping, Why not she can drive? Double standards and hypocracy is bringing no good to the people but only defaming the religion.
... May 24, 2012 11:20pm
What do crime laws have to do with letting women drive? I think most criminals are found to be men not women...if the issue really was about criminals, then they wouldn't be letting the men drive.