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Why can’t women in Saudi Arabia drive?

May 25, 2011

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.