Repeated appeals to the official authorities in Saudi Arabia to put an end to the ban on women being allowed to drive have been to no avail. Women will not be sitting in the driver’s seat anytime soon, despite a huge number of text messages and emails calling for this by those who advocate women being permitted to drive.
All campaigns to remedy this situation have failed, and in my opinion this is as a result of a mistake being made by attempting to take a shortcut with regards to convincing the government to change its position on this issue. I personally believe that it is impossible to convince any government, regardless of one’s influence, of something without there first being widespread public acceptance of the idea. Those who oppose this idea base their opposition on the official rejection of this, as well as on religious and social aspects as well. It may be difficult for others, by which I mean those outside of Saudi Arabia, to believe that a large proportion of Saudi Arabian men and women are against the idea of women driving cars, especially as this is something normal and ordinary to them, and women also ride donkeys, horses, and camels. Those outside of Saudi Arabia believe that this ban exists in opposition to the will of the public, but we do not know if this is true, in light of the lack of polling information to reveal public opinion on this issue.
Lately efforts have been focused on convincing the government to put an end to the ban, and to keep pace with the rest of the world. However this is not a smart bet, as it is the policy of all governments in the world to avoid taking unnecessary risks and refrain from swimming against the stream. Those who cite the example of Rosa Parks, the African-American civil rights activist who refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger in defiance of racially discriminative laws at the time, fail to understand that change does not take place after just one incident. The woman in question was arrested, and buses remain segregated for a long time afterwards. However what was important was rallying public opinion against this [discriminative law].
Is the problem in Saudi Arabia more complex than the race problem in the US? Perhaps the mistake lies in the 40-year delay in issuing the decision recognizing a woman’s right to drive as back then this was neither an issue nor a demand however it gradually became a custom then a law.
Despite this, today there are more than a few clerics who acknowledge the right of women to drive. There is also a growing proportion of society that supports this idea; however there is a large percentage of Saudi Arabians who are still concerned, scared, sceptical, and oppose change. The ban on women driving has become something of a symbol for them, and the government is attempting to take the middle path, as it does not want to impose change from above.
It would be much easier to impose this from above if there was sufficient public support for this idea. However is there truly public support towards ending the ban on women driving? Nobody knows. The general impression is no, but we might be wrong. When we say “public support” we do not mean in the democratic concept of a “slim majority” or “51 percent” but rather what we require is an overwhelming majority.
Why is it important to secure an overwhelming majority? Since when have decisions been taken in accordance with opinion polls? An overwhelming majority is beneficial in this case as it would allow the idea to become reality with only a little official push. A slim majority on the other hand would result in bitter social and political division. Feeling the pulse of the general public is the easiest way to making this decision. Many things that were socially and officially taboo have become acceptable as an everyday reality as a result of popularity, including satellite television, whereas today satellite dishes can be seen on rooftops everywhere. The same applies to mobile phones with built-in cameras; they were originally banned however this was reserved due to popular demand.
I am certain that convincing public opinion in Saudi Arabia would be easier than trying to push the government towards taking a decision granting women the right to drive. The same reasons that justify the ban justify it being lifted, as this ban has increased the number of scandals, disgraces, and losses.