Saudi Women Lobby for Driving Right
- Saudi Women Lobby King for Driving Right
By DONNA ABU-NASR
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
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
"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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