By coincidence, two very different developments regarding the situation of women in the Arabian Peninsula took place last week. They both deserve our attention. In Kuwait, the Parliament voted to grant women their political rights, while, in Saudi Arabia, calls to allow women to drive were timidly announced. Both matters are, in fact related, with the only different residing in the timing of each announcement. The Kuwaiti women”s rights movement arrived some 42 years late to its destination in Parliament. In Saudi Arabia, the issue of women driving is still in its infancy, after starting off in November 1990, when a number of Saudi women defied a ban on
driving and took to their cars across Riyadh, generating a storm of
opposition and official condemnation.
I am well aware that the debate surrounding women and driving, which at times, is blown out of proportion, is difficult to comprehend by those who live outside the Kingdom. As a matter of fact, it is somewhat trivial, but also, complicated. The discussion on women driving has become the symbol of an ongoing battle between two ideologies that competing for the soul of Saudi society. This is a dispute between those who want to cling to the past and those who embrace the future. The issue of women driving in Saudi Arabia
now finds itself stuck between these two opposing poles. Of course, it is also a simple issue because driving is a minor and intuitive right.
It is true that there is no religious argument that forbids women from driving, for the simple reason that, at the time of the Prophet Mohammed, there were no Toyotas or BMWs being made in factories across the world. It is also true that other conservative Muslim women enjoy driving their own cars in other Arab countries and, even, in neighboring countries in the Gulf region. It is again true that there are Muslim rulers who believe that the issue is not a religious matter and that society ought to produce its own
verdict. All this is true; however, we can no longer afford to hesitate. Instead, we need to end the ear of the marginalization of women before it becomes too late.
Forbidding women to drive makes her less of a participant in everyday life; it prohibits her from being the master of her own fate. Besides, we all know that the person behind the wheel is in less danger than the one sitting in the passenger seat!
Let us now go back to the coincidence I mentioned in the beginning of this article.
In Kuwait, the Islamist and conservative representatives tired to prohibit women from obtaining their full political right but failed. They shouted and denounced this decision and alleged that women”s participation in Parliament is a violation of standard religious rules. The Salafi (following the traditions of early Muslims) deputy, Walid Tabatabai protested vehemently against the new law and quoted from the Muslim theologian Imam Shafi, who lived in the 9th century AD and couldn”t have imagined neither what a parliament looks like, nor a modern day urban society, and therefore, is not to be blamed.
Instead, it is the Kuwaiti representative who has ignored other past and contemporary Muslim scholars who have declared that there is no religious obstacle to women holding political positions and participating in Parliament, for example Dr. Yousif Al Qardawi.
What is truly amazing in this instance is how an educated man like Dr, Abdullah Al Nafissi, exploited this incident. He wrote in several Kuwaiti newspapers and issued threats and warnings to all Islamist movements on the Arabia peninsula to resist the flow of democracy because, in reality, it is a trap for all Islamists set by the United States of America.
I am certain he would”ve repeated the same words if he were a Saudi
hardliner, speaking on the subject of women and driving. For, in essence, it is the same opposition to challenging the status quo that is on display in the two neighboring countries.
Across the border, in Saudi Arabia, a discussion on the traffic system took place where a loophole in the law, affirming the individual”s inalienable right to drive was discovered, unleashing Pandora”s Box. Some Members of the Consultative Council and others from outside the Council said the discussion had be implanted on to the agenda, adding that it was an important humanitarian issue that needs to be addressed, even if by contrived means.
The issue of women driving in Saudi Arabia has taken on a larger
significance and requires courage to be debated. Sadly, what we see
happening is not a discussion on the benefits of allowing women to drive but an assessment of the situation of women in the Kingdom, which is dependent on Saudi culture and religion.
Dr. Mohammed Zulfa, a Member of the Council, who has single-handedly taken on the issue of giving women the right to drive, told me" Do you know that there are around one million foreign drivers currently working inside the Kingdom? Do you realize that the amount of money spent on these drivers is around 12 billion Saudi Riyals I
was unaware of these figures. But Zulfa continued: "Those who forbid women from driving do so under the pretense of corruption and other religious arguments like a woman”s privacy with a man. What about the foreign driver?
Isn”t he in the privacy of a Saudi woman in the car? Isn”t he assuming a position of power because he has the right to drive?"
Without wishing to dwell on the social and security problems that are caused by this huge army of foreign drivers, I would like to relay the words of a Saudi woman on the subject. She told me how her driver controlled every detail of her life, how he knew her particularities "more than other do because he is with [her] inside the mobile box (the car) most of the time."
This Saudi lady belongs to the group of women who have been demanding the right to drive and in November 1990, took to the streets of Riyadh to make their voices herd. The news of several women driving in the Saudi capital quickly spread through the media and conservative passions flared up, either because of religious or social reasons, and at times, because of a mixture of both. These women drivers were arrested and a hardliners launched a campaign against them. The repercussions of that autumn day are still being felt across Saudi Arabia to this day. Dr. Fawziya, one of the women drivers, says she is reminded of her past defiance on a daily basis, especially in academic circles where, according to her, she is continually denied promotion. She still cherishes the memories of that moment and continues to hope that, one day, she will be able to drive her card and travel freely
with her children and female friends in the streets of Riyadh.
The issue of women and driving in Saudi Arabia is neither a minor issue, nor an economic problem. It is, above all, an issue of principal and ethics. However, for the time being the debate remains centered on questions of "can a women be trusted?" and "will time heal everything?"