Dammam, Asharq Al-Awsat – The arrest of Manal al-Sherif has brought the issue of women driving in Saudi Arabia into the spotlight once again; the issue is an extremely contentions one, causing division between different components of Saudi society. This controversy was raised against the backdrop of the arrest of Manal al-Sherif on Saturday, a day after she posted footage of herself behind the wheel on the video-sharing website YouTube.
A source within Saudi Arabia’s Public Security told Asharq Al-Awsat that the issue of women driving is a legislative issue; the source stressed that the Saudi Public Security and the Traffic Department are not involved in making laws, only enforcing them.
The official spokesman for the Saudi Arabian Traffic Department refused to comment on what actions the department would take with regards to cases of women driving.
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, Director of the Jeddah Traffic Department, Brigadier Mohamed al-Qahtani stressed that “the response of the Traffic Department can be seen in the statement made by Director of Public Security General Saeed Bin Abdullah al-Qahtani during the press conference held on Saturday.” In this statement, General al-Qahtani stressed that the issue of women driving in Saudi Arabia is a legislative issue, without giving further details.
For his part, Director of the Saudi Arabian Shura Council’s Commission for Human Rights, Dr. Mishal al-Ali, told Asharq Al-Awsat that there is no legal or religious impediment preventing Saudi women from driving. He stressed that the Saudi authorities are obliged to guarantee this right, and that the request for a formal legal position on this issue falls outside of rational argument.
At the same time, Dr. al-Ali called for the issue of men and women driving to be legally codified to allow everybody to exercise their right to drive safely and freely.
Dr. al-Ali stressed that the absence of public transport for women in Saudi Arabia makes the issue of women driving an urgent one, but acknowledged that the absence of laws in this regard needs to be addressed. Dr. al-Ali called for a special traffic department to be formed to monitor women driving, with female officers stationed on the roads to facilitate the issue of women driving.
The Director of the Shura Council’s Commission for Human Rights also criticized those who say that the issue of women driving represents a gateway to moral degradation and societal corruption, stressing that such opinions are not based upon Islamic Shariaa law. He added “Muslim women in every country of the world drive cars whilst continuing to wear the hijab or niqab, and there is no dishonor in that.”
Asharq Al-Awsat also spoke with Najla Hariri, a Saudi Arabian woman who openly drove around the city of Jeddah last week and who was not arrested by the Saudi authorities. Hariri told Asharq Al-Awsat that she was only exercising her legal rights, describing the public’s reaction to seeing a woman driving a car as being “good.”
Hariri stressed that the lack of a law banning women from driving grants her, and all Saudi women, the right to drive. She said that “if society does not want us to drive cars then it must issue a law banning this, in which case if we drive we will be brought to account [according to the law].”
In a separate interview with the BBC, Najla Hariri said “Enough is enough, I have the right [to drive]” stressing that “there is no law against women driving. It’s society’s [convention] that says women are not allowed to drive.”
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, Saudi Shura Council member, Dr. Zuheir al-Harathi called on women to prioritize their needs and their requirements with regards to the legislature, adding that “the issue of women driving is being given more coverage than it deserves.” He stressed that women are not banned from driving, and that the issue of women driving should be formally organized.
Dr. al-Harathi told Asharq Al-Awsat that “even if women have the right to drive, this does not give them the right to go drive outside of an official framework or organization.” He said “there are courts and official bodies that decide such right; the law must be implemented, and there must be a legal framework with regards to the exercising of such rights.” He added that it is a transgression for anybody to “impose” their demands on the law.”
Al-Harathi stressed that women taking to the streets and driving cars in order to impose their demands on the law represents a provocation to the official authority, adding that “this method may be flashy, but it does not provide a solution.”
Al-Harathi also told Asharq Al-Awsat that when women, or any component of society, bring up their problems for discussion, society will respond to this, but when they try to impose their will or demands utilizing flashy methods, this will not work or provide practical solutions. He stressed that “practical solutions must go hand-in-hand with the nature of [Saudi] society.”