A. By a ruling of the Saudi consultative body, the Shura Council, women in Saudi Arabia are prohibited from driving a car.
B. The ban is unreasonable; and based on outdated traditionalist views, which may be gradually being changed by moderate elements, though the pace of change is slow.
II. EVIDENCE SUPPORTING A LIFTING OF THE BAN
A. Islamic codes compel women to conform to certain behaviours, though many have travelled and/or been educated abroad and are aware of their restricted freedoms.
B. A Saudi Prince described the ban as “a demeaning tribal custom” and a report said the king was proposing to “overturn the ban” (Flock, 2011).
C. Conversely, cleric Sheikh Abdul Rahman Al-Barrak typified extreme conservative views, stating that anyone allowing co-education must retract or be put to death. Other diehards in the Saudi religious establishment view woman driving as “western-backed female terrorism.” (Nafjan, June 2011).
D. The present gender discrimination “is unsustainable, economically, socially and legally.” (Nafjan, June 2011.
E. Active protestors can lose their jobs and homes and family members forced to leave the country. (McVeigh, June 2012).
F. Progress is suggested by the appointment by King Abdullah of 30 female members to the Shura Council (ynet, March 2013). However, those appointments to the Shura Council do not change women’s’ daily lives; they still cannot open bank accounts or apply for passports. (Jamjoom, January 2013).
H. Some in the establishment propose gradually lifting the ban (Kawach, March 2013).
I. Many Saudi women living abroad are learning to drive (Khan, March 2013).
A. Saudi women are frustrated being in the only country that bans women drivers.
B. Change is coming, led by the king, but is held back by the traditionalists.
C. Women will be permitted to drive, but it may take longer than hoped for.
In Saudi Arabia, women are not permitted to drive a car. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world to have such a ban (ynet, March 2013), which is not backed by law, but by edict of a consultative body known as the Shura Council. That body has 150 members, whose role is to advise King Abdullah in all matters including drafting laws for the King to approve. There has never been a law-enforced ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia, but the ban was effectively made formal by the 1991 issue of a fatwa (religious ruling), preventing Saudi Arabian women from obtaining a driving license (Flock, 2011).
The essay argues that such a ban is unreasonable, and is based on outdated, outmoded opinions held by ultra-conservative Saudi males, clinging onto traditionalist male chauvinistic views of women’s subservient position in society. However, the situation is likely to change through pressure from various quarters, including Saudi women and even some moderate elements of the Saudi regime, although the pace of change may be slower than many Saudi women and like-minded supporters would hope.
Evidence Supporting a Lifting of the Ban
Although women in Saudi Arabia are in many circumstances obliged for the sake of appearances to observe Islamic codes, such as their mode of dress in public, many – especially those who have been able to travel and perhaps were educated abroad – are aware that their freedom is heavily restricted in many respects, including this ban on driving. As a consequence, and particularly because, according to Flock, there were reported assurances that King Abdullah was set to “overturn the ban” and that Saudi Prince Waleed had described it as “a demeaning tribal custom”, women began to actively rebel against the measure. Flock related how some women organized protest movements. One such, Manal al-Sharif, was arrested in May 2012 for overseeing an internet campaign promoting women driving, although she later ended her campaign and issued an apology to the king.
Flock also reported statements made by Sheikh Abdul Rahman Al-Barrak, a Saudi cleric, which are indicative of the extreme views held by some of the conservative elements in Saudi Arabia. According to Flock, in early 2010 he had called for anyone promoting co-education to be “put to death” and as reported in Arab News said: “Whoever allows this mixing allows forbidden things, and whoever allows them is an infidel and this means defection from Islam. Either he retracts or he must be killed because he disavows and does not observe the Shariah.”
Al Nafjan also reported on the strength of opposition from the Saudi establishment (June 2011) in her article “Women driven to confusion in Saudi Arabia” with the sub-heading “The current situation of gender discrimination against who can and cannot drive is unsustainable.” She reported how the view of the religious sector of the establishment has been that the campaign by some women against the driving ban has been “western-backed female terrorism”, or that it is a conspiracy by an Iranian/Shia faction designed to destabilize Saudi Arabia. The official line however is unclear. Al Nafjan noted that King Abdullah had defined the idea of women being permitted to drive as a social issue, yet the police still detain women who are caught driving. Speculating just what the future holds for women in Saudi Arabia aspiring to drive freely on Saudi roads, Al Nafjan asked whether the government will quietly ignore women driving (effectively “turning a blind eye”), or will they arrest and imprison more women drivers to set examples? She concluded by emphasizing that whilst people in general simply do not know what will be the outcome, in her view the present gender discrimination “is unsustainable, economically, socially and legally.”
Further indications of the risks Saudi women take by defying the ban were reported by McVeigh (June 2012). Reporting for the guardian, McVeigh also cited Manal al-Sharif as an example of the persecution suffered by those who flout the ban, stating that just a year after becoming known for her defiance of the driving ban she has “been forced to resign from her job at Saudi's government-owned Aramco oil company and has lost her housing.” Also, that “Family members have left the country out of fears for their safety.”
Despite all that evident and entrenched opposition to women being permitted to drive within Saudi Arabia, there is some encouragement that opinions among the more liberal-minded in the Saudi regime (not least the king himself) are changing. For example, according to the ynet article referenced earlier, King Abdullah appointed 30 female members to the Shura Council in 2012; the first ever appointment of women to that body.
Jamjoom (January 2013) commented on the appointment of those 30 women to the Shura Council in his CNN article: “Small step forward for Saudi women, but will it affect their daily lives?” He noted that although the Shura Council must now include 20 percent of its members as women, they must still be fully veiled, have their own (segregated) entry and exit points, work in separate offices and their prayers must be separate from the male council members. He quoted a leading female activist, Wajeha Al-Huwaider, who said that whilst this move was positive progress, “It's not going to affect our lives as ordinary women – our daily life, going to work, finding a job, getting an education.” She also made the point that because women are forbidden to drive, “We'll have representatives on the Shura Council who can't even go there without a driver.” Adding a positive note, she did concede that women being seen to do the same job as male colleagues is good, and that they will become role models for younger women, so that in future there could be women elected to such positions rather than simply being appointed. She added that “we’re still waiting for our basic rights.” Jamjoom concluded his article by reminding readers that in addition to Saudi women being forbidden to drive, they are not allowed to open bank accounts, cannot apply for a passport, or even travel to school without a male escort / chaperone.
But, in the midst of all this mainly religion-based traditionalist opposition to women driving, we should look at the commonsense reasons for allowing them to drive, just as women are allowed to do in every other country of the world. Even in the most conservative of countries, the formerly completely subservient role of women is no longer a reality. The culture in Saudi Arabia has to change. The country has modernized itself in so many respects, but has not broken away from an outdated and largely irrelevant culture that keeps women oppressed and with few rights.
There are signs that even among those on the ruling Shura Council, there is the beginning of a gradual shift of opinion. On a blog website called Saudi Women Driving, there is a report by Kawach (March 2013) about a Shura Deputy and court judge called Issa Al Gaith proposing what he calls a “gradual lifting of the ban.” It seems he suggested a limited lifting of it in certain cities, before any final decision nationwide would be made. According to a quote attributed to him in a Saudi newspaper, he said: “Women could be allowed to drive gradually in one city or some cities in the Gulf Kingdom afterwards, authorities can determine what benefits this decision will bring before they fully enforce it.” Mashaal Mamdouh, another Shura member and head of its human rights group, was quoted as stating that “Those who strongly object to women’s driving are mostly tribal people who stick to long-standing traditions and habits.” So is the hard line against women driving softening? The signs should be treated with caution. Whilst some in the regime, probably including King Abdullah, are ready for change, it should be remembered that any liberal elements in Saudi Arabia have to always beware of a backlash from the traditionalists if they are seen to be moving too quickly towards liberalism, seen by some as westernization in another guise.
Saudi women themselves are, in considerable numbers, pre-empting the possibility of a future lifting of the driving ban. Two more reports on the Saudi Women Driving website touched on this topic. The first is a report by Khan (March 2013) entitled “Shura may discuss women driving issue.” In that report Khan mentioned that about 36 percent of Saudi women living in the UAE drive cars there. He also reported that in Dubai, circa 55 Saudi women learn to drive and receive licenses every month, and that in the last two years in Bahrain, some 6,000 Saudi women have obtained driving licenses. The report also mentioned that many Saudi women are in possession of international driving licenses. The second report, entitled “Female Saudi students in the US learn to drive” described how many Saudi female students in the US are being taught to drive to solve their personal transport problems including taxi fares costs, while studying at colleges and universities there. The report covered members of a club in Flint, Michigan for Saudi students. The club president Abdul Rahman Khalaf Al-Shammari described how they had appointed a driving tuition organization who would use only female instructors to teach the female students, “to safeguard their customs and traditions.” The company would also use female staff for the transport of those students to/from the school. He further commented that other Saudi student clubs across the US were planning similar driving tuition schemes for their female students.
The frustration of women in Saudi Arabia being forbidden to drive a car is understandable, especially when women in just about every other country around the world – including all the other Islamic countries – allow it. With more and more Saudi women travelling abroad, they see women driving as part of the everyday scene. They even drive themselves while away from Saudi Arabia, in many instances taking driving lessons and obtaining international driving licenses. There does seem to be change coming in Saudi Arabia, partly due to King Abdullah having a progressive outlook, but the pace of change is slow due to the strength of the traditionalist opposition from clerics and others who see women driving as opening the door to sinful behaviour on their part. Women being allowed to drive will come to Saudi Arabia, but it may take longer than many women are hoping.
Al Nafjan, E. “Women driven to confusion in Saudi Arabia.” (June 2011). the guardian. Web. 25 March 2013.
“Female Saudi students in the US learn to drive.” (March 2013). Saudi Women Driving. Web. 24 March 2013.
Flock, E. “Saudi Arabian women banned from driving because of fatwa against gender ‘mixing’.” (June, 2011). The Washington Post. Web. 24 March, 2013.
Jamjoom, M. “Small step forward for Saudi women, but will it affect their daily lives?” (January 2013). CNN. Web. 25 March 2013.
Kawach, N. “Deputy proposes end to ban in some cities before final decision.” (March 2013). Saudi Women Driving. Web. 24 March 2013.
Khan, G., A. “Shura may discuss women driving issue.” (March 2013). Saudi Women Driving. Web. 24 March 2013.
McVeigh, T. “Saudi Arabian women risk arrest as they defy ban on driving.” (June 2012). The guardian. Web. 24 March, 2013.
“Saudis reconsider driving ban on women.” (March, 2013). ynet. Web. 24 March 2013.