The most significant new development is not the demand to grant Saudi women the right to drive, rather, it is that three women members of the Saudi Shura Council have called for this right. These women are not like some famous activists or bold female writers who write in the Saudi press. Many men and women demanded this right for years but the surprise is that these three members filed a recommendation that the de facto ban on women driving be lifted. This means that they are fulfilling both their representative role as women and their legislative role as members of the Shura Council. When it comes to the sensitive issue of women driving, this is a brave council and these are brave women. The call to lift the driving ban is no longer limited to intellectuals, rationalists, modernists, liberals, expats, feminists, foreign journalists, human rights organizations, Americanized people and Westernized people.
What has happened is that during the past 10 years of dialogue, Saudi society broke social and political taboos and engaged in serious discussion of this social issue, of women driving. The open dialogue changed the opinion and the stance of many people who were against women driving. Such people, who were against women driving, previously constituted the higher percentage of those discussing the issue. Social issues here cannot be settled with referendums or the will of the majority because the conservative minority is capable of obstructing any new, modernizing, idea. The history of Saudi Arabia is full of such social conflicts between the old and the modern—conflicts which can be over almost anything.
When Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdelaziz appointed 30 women to the Shura Council—20 percent of its total membership—at the beginning of this year, the decision caused uproar among conservative segments in Saudi society. Some thought these women were mere decoration but they proved to be the most active. These women dropped a bombshell when they submitted a request to grant women the right to drive. The issue thus became more than a discussion among a bunch of intellectuals. This reminds the state that its duty is to foster development. This role may mean that the government will confront a wave of honest opposition protests as well as opportunistic opposition protests.
The Saudi government has always led development programs in the country, and every time the state carried out the role of leading development policies, it was confronted with the opposition of some segments of society. Some carried arms against the state. But the state has never backed down and it has eventually won every time, from opening girls’ schools to granting women an identity card and giving women senior official posts.
The issue of women driving is an old battle, the culmination of which has been postponed since the 1960s. It is perhaps been postponed out of hope that the right time will come to allow women’s driving, or that a driverless, automated car will be invented so the government can sidestep the issue altogether.
With time, however, the problem has grown and not shrunk, as social divisions over the issue increased and the price which the government and society are paying as a result of the ban became higher. The one million foreigners brought to the country to drive women around have made Saudi Arabia the most alluring country for chauffeurs. Saudi Arabia also has the highest percentage of unemployed women in the world.
Whether the government listens to the recommendation of three of the women on the Shura Council or not, the issue of women driving has become a heavily debated case in the country. The price of failing to grant women this right costs everyone a great deal, politically and economically. Don’t forget that the picture no longer makes sense, as the government sends tens of thousands of girls to study at prominent foreign universities, like Harvard and Cambridge, and then prevents them from driving cars in their own country!