Saudi Arabia Challenged on Women Driving by Protest
by Stephen Schwartz
The demonstration was called to mark the anniversary of last year's protest by female drivers. On that occasion, at least 60 Saudi women operated cars in public. Since the desert monarchy is the only country in the world that forbids women from driving, a small number created a large sensation.
This year, the day before the event was to be held, the Saudi interior ministry, headed by Prince Muhammad Bin Nayef, warned that it would "apply the laws . . . against anyone who participates in a protest." It condemned women driving cars as illegality that would "undermine social cohesion." Prince Muhammad is the son of the late Wahhabi hardliner, Crown Prince Nayef Bin Abdul Aziz (1934-2012).
The Saudi taboo on women driving is not backed by an Islamic legal text or Saudi judicial decision, according to the online Arabic-language petition www.oct26driving.com. Rather, the ban reflects the continuing retrograde influence of the country's Wahhabi clerical apparatus, which represents the sole interpretation of Islam approved by the reigning House of Saud and seeks to keep women subordinate to men. Advocates for the appeal in favor of women driving say it has collected more than 2,800 signatures, including those of some Saudi men.
The kingdom's National Society of Human Rights (NSHR) has argued for a "gradual approach" to women driving. But its deputy chief, Saleh Al Kathlan, said the ministry's official warning was issued although no public statute bars Saudi women driving. He noted, in the English-language Saudi daily Arab News of October 26, that Saudi authorities have said throughout the controversy "there is nothing official against women driving."
He continued, "Then along comes the recent statement made by the Ministry of Interior citing 'government regulations' against driving and warning that violators of such 'regulations' would be punished. In such a situation, the basis of society's argument for allowing women to drive becomes meaningless. This puts human rights activists advocating a gradual approach to this issue in a very awkward position."
According to Western reportage, the latest women's driving campaign was successful because of its spread across social media, although it is unclear how many women took the wheel and started their engines. The women's-rights effort called on Saudi women to post images or videos of themselves in their cars.
Discussion of the issue is confused by apparent misinformation. In the same October 26 issue of Arab News, a Saudi woman and activist, Samia El-Moslimany, was quoted accepting, allegedly, the restrictive order by the interior ministry. The paper described El-Moslimany saying, "The ministry's warning will be heeded. . . . Nothing has been planned to violate the ministry's warning. October 26 is a symbolic day. The campaign is only to create awareness on the issue."
But at the head of the Arab News comment section, El-Moslimany wrote, "I was misquoted. The campaign has NOT been dropped! It is FORGING ahead. I did not say that women won't take to the streets, insha'Allah [God willing] they do, in individual normal everyday acts of driving on their own with a valid driver's license. What I DID say is that there are no plans to violate (or encourage anyone to violate) the Ministry Of Interior prohibitions or to break any laws of Saudi Arabia." Arab News stated additionally that some 47 percent of Saudi women own cars—an extraordinary number, considering that the CIA World Factbook counts the female population of the kingdom at around 12 million.
Then, on November 7, Associated Press staffer Abdullah Al-Shihri reported that the Saudi Shura Council, an unelected, advisory, non-legislative body appointed by King Abdullah, had recommended that Saudi women be allowed to operate cars. Last year the ruler appointed 30 women to the previously all-male, 150-member Shura Council. Three conditions were attached to the Council's advice: that women be required to be older than 30 to drive, that they wear no makeup while doing so, and that they obey an 8 p.m. curfew. Further, according to the AP, a "female traffic department" would be set up by the authorities.
The AP account was advertised as an exclusive from the news agency and published widely in Western media. On November 8, however, the Saudi-owned, Dubai-based Al Arabiya television news channel declared the story a hoax, which had appeared in Arabic language media in 2008, detail by detail, and had been refuted then as untrue, and perhaps a prank.
Al Arabiya, which is notably professional and credible, declared that a "source close to a Shura Council member" had said there were "no recent developments on the women driving front to report, adding that such announcements are usually made public."
AP writer Al-Shihri had written that "similar provisions have been floated as far back as 2008" but offered no confirmation of any deliberations on the topic then or now.
Like so many aspects of Saudi society, that of women driving is clouded by a lack of institutional transparency. Yet the mere fact of the discussion indicates significant trends toward reform beneath the surface of Saudi royal governance and Wahhabi doctrinal control, with the status of women at the head of the agenda.