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The Public Debate in Saudi Arabia on Women Driving

By: Y. Admon
MEMRI
November 6, 2007 - No. 402
http://memri.org/bin/latestnews.cgi?ID=IA40207
 

November 6, 2007 will mark the 17th anniversary of a protest by a group of Saudi women against an October 1990 fatwa prohibiting women from driving cars and stating that any woman caught driving must be punished.The fatwa, issued by 'Abd Al-'Aziz bin Baz, then Saudi Grand Mufti and a member of the Saudi Senior Clerics Association, prompted the Saudi Interior Ministry to officially ban women from driving. On November 6, 1990, 47 Saudi women protested against the fatwa by driving through the streets of Riyadh, for which they were arrested by Saudi police. [1]

On May 22, 2005, two members of the Saudi Shura Council proposed lifting the ban on women driving. Although the Shura Council has repeatedly postponed discussion of this proposal, it rekindled the public debate in the country over the ban. In the press, some columnists opposed the ban, arguing that women should be permitted to drive for social and economic reasons, and pointing out that this was prohibited neither by the Koran nor by Saudi traffic laws. Other columnists argued that the ban should not be lifted, because women driving would lead to mixing of men and women and would also increase congestion on the roads, thus leading to more traffic accidents. Public figures and religious scholars also took various positions on the matter.

It should be noted that four Saudi women, including women's rights activist Wajeha Al-Huwaidar, recently formed a league for the promotion of women's rights in Saudi Arabia, and in September 2007 submitted a petition to Saudi King 'Abdallah bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz demanding that women be granted the right to drive. [2]

This report will present the views of Saudi public figures and religious scholars on the issue of women driving, as well as positions of Saudi women.

The Proposal to Lift the Ban on Women Driving

The proposal, by two Shura Council members, Muhammad bin 'Abdallah Aal-Zalafa and 'Abdallah Bukhari, specified that the right to drive would be granted to women aged 35 and over, and that they would be permitted to drive unaccompanied inside cities and villages, but on intercity roads they would have to be accompanied by a male relative.

In statements to the Saudi daily Al-Watan, Aal-Zalafa said that "permitting women to drive will allow them to take responsibility [for themselves] instead of depending on [the services of] a foreign driver [3]... Society has changed and developed, and women have assumed many responsibilities, since they [now] participate in all spheres of life. Many women with jobs are [often] late for work because they cannot find [a family member] to drive them, and they are therefore at the mercy of their foreign driver..." Aal-Zalafa stated further that "there is no issue that is not open to debate, unless the Koran, or the Sunna, provides a clear and explicit [judgment] on it, [which is not the case with the issue of women driving]..." [4]

In an interview with Al-Arabiya TV, Aal-Zalafa said that the 1991 fatwa by the Senior Clerics Association of Saudi Arabia included no valid religious arguments against women driving. He added that the current Saudi law was motivated by social rather than religious considerations, and by concerns that women's driving could lead to immoral behavior. [5]

Statements by Saudi Officials

Some Saudi officials supported women's driving, arguing that nothing in the Koran forbade it, and that practical considerations would eventually necessitate the lifting of the ban. Others stated that the issue should be decided by Saudi society.

Saudi King 'Abdallah bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz said in an interview with ABC, aired October 14, 2005: "I am a firm believer in women's rights... Some day, women will be allowed to drive cars. Moreover, in some parts of the Saudi kingdom, in the desert [regions] and the rural areas, you can see women driving cars. This matter requires patience. With time, I believe that it will become possible." Asked whether he plans to issue a royal decree permitting women to drive, King 'Abdallah replied: "I cannot do something that is unacceptable in the eyes of my people." [6]

The Saudi Defense Minister, Crown Prince Sultan bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz, said that the issue of women's driving should be decided by the family, not by the government. "[This] is a matter for fathers, husbands and brothers [to decide]," he said. "It has nothing to do with the government. When fathers, husbands and brothers request that women be allowed to drive, we will look into the matter. But if they request [that the ban remain in effect], we will certainly not force them [to permit women to drive]." [7]

Saudi Interior Minister Prince Naif bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz stated that public debate on this issue was meaningless, since it is a social matter that will ultimately be decided by society. [8] On another occasion, he said that the time was not yet ripe for lifting the ban, since public interest did not currently necessitate it. Women's driving, he said, is a secondary issue which is not a top priority in Saudi Arabia at the moment. [9]

Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal, on the other hand, told the German magazine Der Spiegel in an interview that he personally was in favor of lifting the ban, "not for philosophical or political reasons, but for practical ones." He added that the issue was not a religious one, since nothing in the Koran prohibited women from driving, and concluded, "We must overcome people's deep-rooted objection to it." [10]

In a November 2, 2007 interview for a British TV channel, Saud Al-Faisal reiterated his position that women should be allowed to drive, but added that "we [i.e. the authorities] will not be the ones to decide this issue. It is the families that must decide [i.e., the woman's father, brothers and husband.] This is not a political issue but a social one... which will be decided by the public, not by the government." [11]

Saudi Traffic Law Includes No Clause Referring to Gender

Columnists in favor of lifting the ban likewise argued that women should be allowed to drive for social and economic reasons, and because the Koran and Sunna do not forbid it. They also pointed out that Saudi traffic law does not specify that only men are permitted to drive.

'Abdu Khal, a columnist and editor for the Saudi daily 'Okaz, stressed the latter argument. He wrote in an editorial: "Say a woman is driving her car down a street in our kingdom, obeying the traffic laws and committing no [traffic] violations, and a traffic cop spots her. What can he do? The answer is simple: he can do nothing, since the traffic law does not actually say anything about the gender of drivers...

"If an officer of Saudi Arabia's religious police saw a woman riding with a strange man in his car, what would happen? [He would follow] the usual custom of the religious police, and arrest them for illegal seclusion. [On the other hand,] if the religious police saw a woman driving her own car down the street, she would immediately be arrested, [but] I am not sure what offense she could be charged with... [And what would they do with her once they caught her?] Would they remand her [to the custody] of a family member, even if it was her [own] son or her younger brother? Would they carry her off to a police station for [the offense of] driving? This offense does not appear on any list of offenses in the Saudi [penal] code...

"In [our] households, the one with freedom to drive is the [foreign] driver, and this severely compromises the morals of hundreds of thousands of families. [We pretend] that this is a positive situation. Personally, I do not think that it is positive. This custom is pushing our society towards the abyss [of denying women's rights]. We deny women the right to drive... based on the [false] claim that it will lead to immorality in society..." [12]

Columnist Sharifa Al-Shamlan wrote in the Saudi daily Al-Riyadh: "When we visit the desert regions and rural areas of Saudi Arabia, we find women driving cars and ploughs, and shepherding camels using vehicles... Everybody knows that women who live in the modern gated communities, [13] where there are Saudi men as well as [foreign] men, drive cars... and so do the women in [other] cities, in the desert regions and in the rural [areas]. So what remains [to ban]?...

"[In addition], there is nothing in the traffic laws to preclude women from obtaining a license. Sometimes circumstances force a woman to drive, and then the police, or the traffic authorities, can find no law that incriminates her... We all know that in other countries, most women have a license... [including] in the neighboring countries. [14]

Letting Women Drive Will Save the Expense of Hired Drivers

Columnist Yousef Maki wrote in Al-Watan: "From a social perspective, [lifting the ban on women driving] will be a real step towards greater equality between the sexes. The woman will be able to [drive] her family and children, to be self-dependent, and to share with her husband the responsibility of looking after the family...

"From an economic perspective, there is no doubt that giving up the [services of foreign] drivers will save the state and the citizens billions of riyals every year - [funds] which the drivers have been receiving as wages and sending [to their families] abroad. As a result, the local economy will get a boost, and the financial situation of families will improve, since these funds will be channeled towards more useful purposes. This will have a [positive] effect on the growth and prosperity of [our] society as a whole..." [15]

The Koran and the Sunna Do Not Prohibit Women from Driving

Columnist Khaled Hamed Al-Suleiman wrote in 'Okaz: "The Koran and the Sunna provide no grounds for banning women from driving. Therefore, there is no validity to the claims of those who justify their opposition to women's driving on religious grounds... [Other] Muslim countries allow Muslim women to drive - including [some of] the Gulf states, which are similar to [Saudi Arabia] in customs, traditions, and social makeup - and this has not compromised their security or morality.

"Religious arguments of this kind have been used in the past to argue against the employment and education of women - but eventually women went out and got jobs and an education, and proved that society could rely on them in these matters. It is only a matter of time before the opponents accept that women's driving is a social issue that is open to debate, rather than a religious issue to be decided on the basis of a Koranic verse or a hadith." [16]

Employing Foreign Drivers Puts the Woman and Her Children At Risk

Columnist and poet Halima Muzaffar wrote in Al-Watan that foreign drivers posed a threat to women and their children: "Statistics show that, in Saudi Arabia, there are over a million foreign drivers of different religions and cultures. Some were sent to [Saudi Arabia] because they have a criminal record and [their countries] wished to be rid of them - and we know nothing about them except for the fact that they work as drivers. We have allowed them to bleed us of our money and send it abroad, and we have entrusted them with the safety of our children and our families. They share our homes and rob our women, only to laugh about them in the evening with their fellow drivers, so that the whole neighborhood knows everything about your wife and daughters.

"Many of these drivers, who live among us for years without their wives, come from promiscuous cultures... They live in a religious environment different from their own... and this is very dangerous for society. Almost every day we hear or read in the papers about the exposure of whorehouses run by foreign workers and visited by foreign drivers. The horrible danger [posed by] this deviant behavior threatens our sons and daughters, and the consequences are grave - since husbands must [leave the home] to work or travel, and the women are prevented from taking on the task of [driving the family]...

"It's amazing that those who oppose [women's driving] argue that that [the woman] might socialize with strangers should her car [happen to] break down on the road. At the same time, they allow women to be robbed by [their foreign] drivers; they expose divorcees, widows, and women with no family to the danger of having [a driver] live in their homes; and they expose children to the threat of sexual abuse... Allowing women to drive has become imperative in our society, not a matter of convenience. It will greatly benefit [both] our economy and our society." [17]

Lifting the Ban Will Lead to a Rise in Traffic Accidents

Columnists who opposed the lifting of the ban argued that it would lead to a rise in traffic accidents, to financial losses, and to mixing of men and women. 'Amr Al-Saleh, columnist and transportation expert at King Saud University, wrote in Al-Riyadh: "Allowing women to drive in dangerous traffic will lead to a rise in the number of cars on the roads of the kingdom, and consequently to a rise in traffic accidents. The resulting deaths and injuries will amount to a humanitarian catastrophe, and in order to minimize [the damage] we will have to reduce the number of cars driven by men by developing alternative transportation methods suitable for women..." [18]

Driving Will Cause Women to Take Off Their Veil

Columnist 'Ali Al-Mubarak wrote in the Saudi daily Al-Jazirah: "It's doubtful that [granting] women [the right to] drive will render the [foreign] driver unnecessary, since the driver is present in the home in order to drive the children to school, run errands, and handle [various] household needs while family members are busy with their own affairs. A glance at the neighboring countries reveals that many foreign drivers [are employed there] even though women [are allowed] to drive."

Al-Mubarak further argued that if the ban is lifted, various businesses - such as car dealers, auto parts shops, body shops, and gas stations - will need more workers, and the cost of their salaries will surely be much greater than the sum saved by relinquishing the drivers. "We will save a billion [riyals] only to invest tens of billions," he wrote. Moreover, he argued, "women's driving will surely lead to improper behaviors like [women] taking off the veil, mixing [with men], and leaving their homes in violation of Allah's instruction to "stay in [their] houses [Koran 33:33]." [19]

Driving Will Cause Women to Socialize with Men

Columnist 'Abdallah Al-Sahimi wrote in the Saudi daily Al-Yawm that allowing women to drive was impractical and unnecessary. "Even if the ban is lifted," he argued, "the drivers will continue to be necessary, because [if they leave,] who will drive the women under 35 or women who do not work? Who will drive the rest of the family to the hospital, to visit [family and friends] and so on?...

"In case of an accident, the woman will have to report to the police station for questioning, so that [the police] can determine who is responsible [for the accident] and carry out the necessary procedures. Furthermore, if [a woman] is injured in an accident, and people gather around to wait for the traffic police, what will the woman do? And if she goes to the police station and they have to arrest her, what will happen [then]? [Moreover, if women are allowed to drive], they will stop at gas stations, checkpoints, and red lights, and all this will lead to contact with men." [20]

Saudi Clerics: Society is Not Yet Ready for Women Drivers

Objections to the lifting of the ban were also voiced by clerics, who argued that that Saudi society was not ready to let women drive, and that Saudi women were not capable of driving on their own.

Sheikh 'Abd Al-Muhsin Al-'Obikan, a Shura Council member and legal advisor to the Saudi Justice Ministry, said to Al-Watan that he objected to women's driving not on religious grounds, but because society was not ready for it, and it would therefore create problems. [21] In an interview with the Saudi daily Al-Madina, Al-'Obikan stated: "... [Women's driving] is not categorically forbidden or permitted, since the prohibition does not relate to driving per se - after all, women in the desert [regions] have been driving for a long time, and neither the religious scholars nor the public have condemned this…

"At present, there is no need to permit women to drive in the cities, where they would be exposed to harm, dangers, and harassment, and since it would cause congestion on the roads… Security personnel [would have to] take on the additional responsibility of protecting women drivers, while they already have numerous responsibilities and definitely do not need any additional burdens… If we list all the damage and losses [that will be caused by lifting the ban], we will discover that they are great indeed, and that this matter does not warrant the creation of problems and conflicts within society." [22]

Shura Council Member Sheikh Saleh Al-Fawzan was also against women driving. He said that it would not reduce the number of traffic accidents, and might even increase it, since women are weak and easily alarmed, especially when driving on crowded and dangerous roads, which can be navigated by only the strongest of men. [23]

A communiqué issued by 118 Saudi religious scholars stated that women's driving would have catastrophic consequences, leading women and society at large to compromising situations. In addition to being absent from home, women would be compelled to expose their faces in order to see the road clearly, and also when asked to identify themselves during routine road checks or in the event of a traffic accident. Issuing her a driver's license would likewise present a problem, since she would need to have her picture taken, and men would see it while issuing and renewing the license. [24]

On the other hand, Sheikh 'Abd Al-Fatah 'Ashur said: "…As long as a woman obeys Allah's laws when she leaves the house, there is nothing blameworthy in her driving. Since we consider the woman to be man's equal partner - who studies, works at different jobs, and leaves the house for various reasons, just like the man - there is nothing wrong with her driving [a car]… At the same time, Islamic moral principles must be upheld, so a woman must not use her vehicle to visit dubious places or places where she is exposed to danger. Apart from this, there is nothing preventing her from driving - and it is actually preferable to her being driven by a strange man, whom she does not know and who does not know her." [25]

Saudi Women in a Communiqué to the Crown Prince: "A Woman's Place is in the Home"

In July 2005, a group of 500 Saudi women - doctors, academics, teachers and students - issued a communiqué addressed to then-crown prince 'Abdallah bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz, in which they urged him not to permit women to drive, and to ignore what the newspapers were publishing in favor of women leaving the house. The communiqué declared that supporters of women's driving did not represent women as a whole and did not present their real wishes and aspirations.

Supporting their arguments with Koranic verses, the communiqué claimed that a woman's place was in the home and that she must not leave it. It further stated that woman was created to be a mother and a homemaker, and that the neighboring countries which allowed their women to leave the house suffered from social problems such as unemployment and poverty. They added that driving rendered women vulnerable to sexual harassment in public places and markets and in the vicinity of girl's schools. [26]

Saudi Women Demand the Right to Drive

A group of Saudi women recently formed a league to demand women's right to drive. [27] Fawzia Al-'Uyyouni, one of the league's co-founders and wife of reformist and former political prisoner 'Ali Al-Domaini, told Al-Watan that the league's goal was to raise awareness concerning the importance of women's driving and to demand women's social and employment rights.

Al-'Uyyouni explained that the league comprised four women: Saudi women's rights activist Wajeha Al-Huwaidar, Saudi journalist Ibtihal Al-Mubarak, social activist Haifa Usra, and Al-'Uyyouni herself. On Saudi National Day, September 23, 2007, the league presented King 'Abdallah with a petition demanding women's right to drive, signed by 1,000 women. [28] In an interview, Wajeha Al-Huwaidar told Al-Arabiya TV that the league members were still waiting for King 'Abdallah's reply to their petition. [29]

The following cartoon, titled "A Woman's Driving," was published in the Saudi daily Al-Jazirah. [30]

*Y. Admon is a Research Fellow at MEMRI


[1] http://www.islamonline.net/arabic/news/2005-06/05/article10.shtml

[2] Al Watan (Saudi Arabia), September 21, 2007.

[3] Many families in Saudi Arabia employ a live-in foreign driver, usually from the Philippines or India, to drive the women and children.

[4] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), May 22, 2007.

[5] http://www.alarabiya.net/Articles/2005/06/07/13743.htm.

[6] Al-Madina (Saudi Arabia), October 14, 2005.

[7] Al-Hayat (London), December 28, 2005.

[8] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), June 1, 2005.

[9] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), June 13, 2005.

[10] http://www.islamonline.net/Arabic/news/2005-06/13/article14.shtml

[11] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), November 4, 2007.

[12] 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), September 10, 2007.

[13] This refers to fenced towns, such as Yanba', Ras Tanura, and Al-Jubail, to which access is limited.

[14] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), June 19, 2005.

[15] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), June 1, 2005.

[16] 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), May 28, 2005.

[17] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), September 26, 2007.

[18] A-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), December 23, 2005.

[19] Al-Jazirah (Saudi Arabia), June 5, 2005.

[20] Al-Yawm (Saudi Arabia), June 8, 2005.

[21] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), May 27, 2005.

[22] Al-Madina (Saudi Arabia), June 15, 2005.

[23] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), May 25, 2005.

[24] This communiqué appeared July 14, 2005 on http://alsaha2.fares.net/sahat/.ee6b2ff.

[25] http://islamonline.net/servlet/Satellite?pagename=IslamOnline-Arabic- Ask_Scholar/FatwaA/FatwaA&cid=1122528610642

[26] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), July 30, 2005.

[27] Al Watan (Saudi Arabia), September 20, 2007.

[28] Al Watan (Saudi Arabia), September 21, 2007. For additional details see MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 1710, "Saudi Feminist Wajeha Al-Huwaidar Launches New Campaign: Let Us Drive Cars," September 11, 2007, http://memri.org/bin/opener_latest.cgi?ID=SD171007. For more on the interview with Wajeha Al-Huwaidar, see MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 1722, "Saudi Feminist Wajeha Al-Huwaidar: The Campaign for Women's Right to Drive in Saudi Arabia is Just the Beginning," September 21, 2007, http://memri.org/bin/articles.cgi?Page=countries&Area=saudiarabia&ID=SP172207.

[29] The complete interview with Ms. Al-Huwaidar was posted on the Al-Arabiya website: http://www.alarabiya.net/programs/2007/09/30/39756.html

[30] Al-Jazirah (Saudi Arabia), June 12, 2007.



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