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June 7, 2011 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 694

In Saudi Arabia, Renewed Debate over Women Drivers

June 7, 2011 | By Y. Admon
Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 694

Introduction

Saudi Arabia's ongoing debate over women driving – an issue that, beginning in 2005, took the fore of public discussion for more than a year – was recently renewed, though an official decision in the matter has yet to be made.[1] It should be noted that Saudi law prohibits women from driving based on a fatwa issued November 8, 1990, by then-Saudi mufti Sheikh 'Abd Al-'Aziz ibn Baz (1912-1999), as well as a prohibition, based on the same fatwa, issued by the Saudi Interior Ministry on November 15, 1990.[2]

The debate was renewed on May 4, 2011, when a group of Saudi women launched a campaign on Facebook announcing their intent to realize their right to freedom of movement by driving their cars in public on June 17, 2011.[3] Although the campaign itself caused no disturbance, a number of Saudi women were subsequently arrested and interrogated by the religious police after video clips disseminated on the Internet showed them driving on public streets.

The most notable case was that of Manal Al-Sharif, a young Saudi woman arrested by the Saudi religious police after being caught driving her car for the second time, and sent to a women's prison in Dammam, in eastern Saudi Arabia.[4] Saudi women's rights activist Wajeha Al-Huweidar, who is considered the forerunner in the campaign for Saudi women's right to drive, rode as a passenger on one of Al-Sharif's drives and was subsequently taken in for questioning by the religious police. She was ultimately forced to sign a document pledging to cease her campaigning activities and her support for women such as Al-Sharif. Though she signed the document, Al-Huweidar added to it a statement of her own saying she would continue using alternative means to fight for women's right to drive, until Saudi law permitted it.

These gestures met with numerous and varying reactions from Saudi columnists and clerics. Deputy Interior Minister Prince Ahmad bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz said that the ban on women drivers was still in effect, in accordance with the Interior Ministry's announcement of 1990. He added that it was the duty of the senior officials in the Interior Ministry to implement the law, and not to question whether or not the demand for women to be allowed to drive was just.[5] In contrast, Information Minister Dr. 'Abd Al-Aziz Khouja wrote on his Twitter page that "a Saudi woman has the right to drive a car, as long as she maintains good manners and a commitment to the laws and values of Islam."[6] A particularly extreme reaction was that of prominent Saudi cleric Sheikh 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Barak, who condemned the Facebook campaign and even wished death upon the women who said they would drive.[7]

Reacting to the issue, Saudi columnists said that arresting a woman merely because she drove a car was irrational, and that the time had come for Saudi law to allow women in Saudi Arabia to drive.

Following are the reactions of two prominent Saudi columnists:

Upholding the Ban on Women Drivers Will Lead to Social Unrest

Tariq Alhomayed, editor-in-chief of the London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, wrote that Saudi Arabia must allow women to drive by a gradual process, in order to prevent the debate from being politicized. Comparing the issue to the revolutions currently sweeping the Arab world, he intimated that it could lead to a similar situation in Saudi Arabia:[8]

"The famous 'scary' story has once again returned to the spotlight, namely, the issue of women driving in Saudi Arabia. It returns this time under different circumstances, and is being affected by [the] media hype that is [a result of] the prevailing conditions in the region, and at a time when some people are simply looking for anything [to report on] Saudi Arabia.

"The basic problem is that the debate over women's right to drive [in Saudi Arabia] has been transformed into a show of force. If women were allowed to drive, this would mean a victory for one trend over another, whilst if they are not allowed, [it] is evidence of the strength of one trend [relative to another]. This is the wrong way to approach such a subject; confining the issue in this manner makes light of it.

"Legally speaking, there is a group of prominent religious scholars who believe women are permitted to drive and that there are no regulations preventing this. King 'Abdallah bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz previously said that the issue of women driving was a social issue, as did Crown Prince Sultan bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz and Second Deputy Prime Minister Prince Naif bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz. This was something that was also reiterated by Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Prince Sa'ud Al-Faisal, so where is the problem?

"Simply speaking, the problem is that the issue of women driving has become a source of psychological dread for all parties, because the issue is being symbolically portrayed as a conflict between different trends, and this is wrong. A definitive decision must be [made regarding] this issue, and it should be [considered] a natural thing, such as women working as doctors and so on, rather than a victory for one trend over another. However, we must also take into account an important point, namely, that the issue of women driving is not something that can be resolved immediately, as if this were the lifting of the emergency law in Egypt or Syria, for example. There are logistical matters to be taken into consideration regarding transportation. The problem today is that, with the media coverage of events in the region, certain terms are being used excessively or made light of.

"When a Saudi woman recently drove her car in Jeddah, nobody said anything. Another [woman] was caught driving in Al-Ras [in Al-Qassim Province], and she was detained by the police for a few hours and then released. However, there is another story of a female Saudi driver in the news which is quite different. She was stopped and told not to drive because there [was] no organization in place [to regulate female driving], but she returned the following day to drive yet again. Her actions were filmed and uploaded on 'YouTube' in order to provoke people, and this approach was, of course, unwise.

"[Ultimately], the key issue here is that women driving in Saudi Arabia is [an inevitability], so why turn this into a prize-fight? It would be [beneficial] to immediately announce the formation of a committee to study this issue, taking a number of suggestions into account, including... allowing [Saudi] women of a certain age to drive in certain cities as part of a pilot scheme. Later, the age limit can be reduced and the experiment extended to other Saudi cities. This is in order to observe the logistical conditions [of women driving]... as well as [to ensure] decency with regards to appearances. Before all of this, there must be a strict and firm law in place to ensure that women drivers are not subject to any forms of sexual harassment or insult.

"Thus, I would say that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with women driving, and this is something that can be implemented calmly. However, what is most important is that this issue must not be politicized, because that is in no one's interest."

The Saudi Woman of Today Must Be Allowed to Drive

In an article in Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rashed, the daily's former editor and the current director-general of Al-Arabiya TV, wrote: "...This month, the existing ban on women driving a car [was implemented once again], with the government claiming that the time has not yet come to annul it, even though many men who opposed the notion [of women driving] in the past have changed their minds for various reasons... [The Saudi public] has become convinced that anyone who wishes to do so has a right to drive, which must not be denied him. The woman in the Arabian Peninsula has always realized this same right and driven in all means of [motorized] transportation, as well as on mules and camels.

"A final decision [now] regarding the ban on [women drivers] would come 40 years late... and any additional postponement will only complicate the matter more... In 1990, women drove their cars on the main streets of the capital of Riyadh. [But] the situation [then] was tense due to the invasion of Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia was in state of war with Iraq under Saddam [Hussein]. The challenge of women [drivers] was addressed with gross oversensitivity, and King Fahd met with women and their husbands, to whom he listened and who listened to him. Twenty years later, we must wonder not why Manal [Al-Sharif] drove her car, but why the rest [of Saudi Arabia's women] do not do the same.

"Much time has passed, [the population of] Saudi Arabia has expanded from 14 million to 27 million, and, over [time], the women's role has expanded [as well]. The number of universities has increased from eight to 22... It is illogical to open [these] universities to women, and to teach them the most advanced specialties, while at the same time forbidding them from driving. Today, the Saudi woman serves a vital role in her home, in providing for her family, and in her society. How is it possible for her to be a heart surgeon in the hospital while she is not trusted to drive a simple vehicle, like a car, which would benefit her life so greatly?..."[9]

*Y. Admon is a research fellow at MEMRI.

 

Endnotes:

[1] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No.402, "The Public Debate in Saudi Arabia on Women Driving," November 6, 2007, The Public Debate in Saudi Arabia on Women Driving.

[3] Facebook.com, May 4, 2011. On May 29, 2011, the activists running the campaign said they had decided to postpone the event to a later date, as the date they had originally chosen coincided with the sixth anniversary of King 'Abdallah's taking the throne, and out of a desire to avoid religious strife. Elpah.com, May 29, 2011. It should be noted that a number of Saudi women describing themselves as academics launched a counter-campaign on Facebook in which they claimed they had no desire to drive. The campaign's pages were removed from Facebook within a short span of time. Sabaq (Saudi Arabia), May 26, 2011.

[4] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), May 22, 2011. The Saudi government removed all the pages Al-Sharif had launched as part of the campaign from Facebook and blocked her Twitter account. Following Al-Sharif's arrest, more than a thousand Saudi citizens signed a petition to King 'Abdallah demanding her immediate release. Al-Sharif was ultimately released on bail on May 30, 2011, on the condition that she publicly announce her renunciation of the Facebook campaign. Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), Cyberdissents.org, May 31, 2011.

[5] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), May 27, 2011.

[6] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), May 31, 2011.

[8] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), May 26, 2011. The original English translation has been lightly edited for clarity and accuracy. It should be noted that Alhomayed has recently expressed scathing criticisms of the Syrian regime, stressing that the protests there were the product of the regime's oppression of the Syrian people. See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No.688, "The Resistance Camp Abandons Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and His Regime," May 13, 2011, The Resistance Camp Abandons Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and His Regime.

[9] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), May 30, 2011.

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