Unlike other Arab societies which have been interacting with the wider world for centuries, Saudi Arabia has remained somewhat isolated, with no new ideas or technology introduced into the country except after much contention. In most cases, the state had to impose new ideas with great difficulty. The most striking example was the introduction of education for girls, amidst massive popular protests. Nevertheless, female schools were opened, and girls started receiving education. Today, statesmen can take pride in doing the right thing, and now receive sincere praise from all segments of society, because the state overturned the ban on female education.
During this month, a significant event took place: the largest university for women in the region was opened in Riyadh. The university will specialize in medical and scientific subjects, and boasts state of the art academic equipment. Coincidentally, this month also witnessed a woman being prohibited from driving a car, in accordance with common law. The government claims that now is not the time to lift such legislation, even though a lot of men, who were previously opposed to the idea of a woman’s right to drive, have changed their minds for different reasons.
There are roughly a third of a million chauffeurs [employed to drive female passengers] in Saudi Arabia. It has been said that the fact that women are prohibited from driving exposes them to a higher risk of crime. Thus, many have become convinced that driving is a universal right, and women should no longer be banned. Historically speaking, women in the Arabian Peninsula have always practiced this right to travel independently, when riding a mule or a camel from one place to another.
Frankly speaking, attempts to resolve the issue of women driving have been delayed over the past 40 years, during which the state has undertaken a large-scale modernization operation in all other domains. With every year that a decision was put off, matters became more complicated. In 1990, women drove cars in the main streets of the Saudi capital, Riyadh. The regional situation was extremely tense due to Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia was in a state of war with Saddam Hussein. Thus this display of feminist defiance was treated with heightened sensitivity at the time. King Fahd, God rest his soul, met with women and their husbands, and exchanged a constructive dialogue with them.
20 years have passed since this incident, and some of us were still amazed that a Saudi woman drove her car earlier this month. In fact, we ought to ask why are more Saudi women not doing this? A long time has elapsed since 1990. Saudi Arabia’s population has grown from 14 million to 27 million, the number of universities has risen from 8 to 22, and the role of women has increased accordingly. Statistics indicate that over 10 million mobile phones are now owned by female Saudis, and 4 million women currently use the internet in the country.
It is not logical anymore to admit women into the finest universities, teaching them prestigious academic subjects, and yet continue to ban them from driving. Saudi women have grown to assume a major role today. They have come to perform a key role domestically, in supporting their families, and in society at large. How can a woman perform heart surgery, and at the same time not be trusted with driving a simple means of transport like a car, which would be greatly beneficial to them in their daily lives?
Perhaps bureaucrats have a long list of inconveniences regarding the consequences of granting women such a right. However, I would confidently assert that at the end of the day, such consequences are manageable and solvable. As more time passes, the issue becomes more complicated due to its neglect.
Granting women the right to drive is like granting education for girls; a tough decision in a conservative society. No one who is well-acquainted with the different dimensions of the issue would play down its potential problems. But this is the destiny of the state; to take care of its citizens’ interests. It is in the interests of Saudi national welfare to remove this ban, after a resolution has been delayed for decades, making the problem far bigger than it needed to be.