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Saudi Women Lobby for Driving Right

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    Saudi Women Lobby King for Driving Right By DONNA ABU-NASR Sep 17, 2007 http://ap.google.com/article/ALeqM5gPiYDjd9mbpzIj_FDIElwd0rgJ0A JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 2, 2007
      Saudi Women Lobby King for Driving Right
      Sep 17, 2007

      JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — For the first time ever, a group of women
      in the only country that bans female drivers have formed a committee
      to lobby for the right to get behind the wheel, and they plan to
      petition King Abdullah in the next few days for the privilege.

      The government is unlikely to respond because the issue remains so
      highly sensitive and divisive. But committee members say their
      petition will at least highlight what many Saudis — both men and women
      — consider a "stolen" right.

      "We would like to remind officials that this is, as many have said, a
      social and not a religious or political issue," said Fowziyyah
      al-Oyouni, a founding member of the Committee of Demanders of Women's
      Right to Drive Cars. "And since it's a social issue, we have the right
      to lobby for it."

      Committee members want to deliver their petition to the king by
      Sunday, Saudi Arabia's national day.

      The driving ban applies to all women, Saudi and foreign, and forces
      families to hire live-in drivers. Women whose families cannot afford
      $300-$400 a month for a driver must rely on male relatives to drive
      them to work, school, shopping or the doctor's.

      The last time the issue was raised was two years ago, when Mohammed
      al-Zulfa, a member of the unelected Consultative Council, asked his
      colleagues to think about studying the possibility of allowing women
      over age 35 or 40 to drive — unchaperoned on city streets but
      accompanied by a male guardian on highways.

      The suggestion touched off a fierce controversy that included calls
      for al-Zulfa's removal from the council and stripping him of Saudi
      citizenship, as well as accusations he was encouraging women to commit
      the double sins of discarding their veils and mixing with men.

      The uproar underscored the divisions in Saudi society between the
      guardians of its super-strict Islamic codes of behavior and those who
      want to usher in more liberal attitudes.

      Conservatives, who believe women should be shielded from male
      strangers, say women in the driver's seat will be free to leave home
      alone and go when and where they please. They also will unduly expose
      their eyes while driving and interact with male strangers, such as
      traffic police and mechanics.

      But supporters of female drivers say the prohibition exists neither in
      law nor Islam, but is based on fatwas, or edicts, by senior clerics
      who say women at the wheel create situations for sinful temptation.

      Women tried to defy the ban once and paid heavily for it. In November
      1990, when U.S. troops were in Saudi Arabia following Iraq's invasion
      of Kuwait, some 50 women got behind the wheel and drove family cars.
      They were jailed for one day, their passports were confiscated and
      they lost their jobs.

      Although the furor over al-Zulfa's comments has abated, anything that
      touches on the issue provokes strong feelings.

      In the weeks ushering in the holy Muslim fasting month of Ramadan,
      which began Thursday, a furious debate erupted in a Saudi newspaper
      over a Ramadan television serial that takes up the hardships the ban
      has caused.

      In the serial, "Amsha bint Ammash," the main character, Amsha, loses
      her father and is forced to relocate from her village to Jiddah. After
      an unsuccessful round of job searching, she decides to become a taxi
      driver — a job open only to men.

      To get around the ban, she disguises herself as a man, adding a
      mustache and donning the white robe and red-and-white-checkered
      headdress Saudi men wear.

      When the program was first advertised, some reacted with shock that a
      Saudi woman was not only portraying a man, but also one who drives.
      Conservatives say women should not emulate men in behavior or dress.

      The controversy has forced the serial's writer, Abdullah Abdul-Amer,
      to issue a statement stressing the goal of the program, aired on the
      Lebanese satellite channel LBC, "is not to incite women to drive."

      "All I wanted to do was raise our contemporary issues from a Saudi
      viewpoint and through comedy," said Abdul-Amer.

      But that has not appeased Saudis determined to uphold the driving ban.

      In a letter to Al-Hayat daily titled "Amsha, we don't need you,"
      reader Iman Abdul-Wahhab wondered why the driving issue "has become an
      obsession for many, Saudis and non-Saudis."

      "Has this become a weak point for us?" she wrote. "As a Saudi girl, I
      say, 'No.'"

      "This is a tradition that has become acceptable," she added. "No one
      has any right to use it as a means to mock or ridicule."

      On Monday, another Saudi newspaper, Al-Watan, ran an article about a
      major car dealership sending out invitations for women in Jiddah to
      come try out a new family sedan for 24 hours. But the dealership
      stressed the invitation was for women and their drivers, who are the
      only ones permitted to test-drive the cars.

      Al-Oyouni said she understands that some women oppose ending the ban.

      "We won't force it on those who don't want it," she said.

      The petition, circulated electronically for signatures, has received a
      lot of support from within the kingdom, from both men and women, as
      well as from outside Saudi Arabia, al-Oyouni said. "This is a right
      that has been delayed for too long."



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