Saudi Arabia: Saudi ban on women driving is a taboo waiting to be broken

Financial Times
Mohamed al-Zulfa was a little-known member of the majlis al-shura (consultative council). A few months ago he became a celebrity when he turned a discussion about a new traffic law into a national debate about the right of women to drive cars.
The soft-spoken but daring Mr al-Zulfa, who also teaches modern history, took one look at the introduction to the draft law and was outraged.
It showed almost 1m foreigners were working as drivers in Saudi Arabia and sending most of their earnings back home.

"So I raised a question: Why don't we allow women to drive to save money? And why do men allow their wives to sit in the car with foreign men anyway?" says Mr al-Zulfa.

The fact that Saudi religious authorities ban women from driving cars to stop them interacting with men - yet are happy to see them chauffeured by foreign men - is one of the many contradictions of Saudi Arabia. But since 1990 when a group of women defiantly drove their cars in Riyadh - and were immediately detained - driving has become an ultra-sensitive issue.

Mr al-Zulfa's intention was to break the taboo. The head of the majlis al-shura ignored his question but the media quickly seized on it. During two weeks earlier this year Mr al-Zulfa was castigated by the ulemas, the official religious scholars, but applauded by women and liberal intellectuals.

Prince Nayef, the tough-minded interior minister, ended the debate by criticising Mr al-Zulfa's timing and declaring that driving was a secondary issue.

Mr al-Zulfa says he is not giving up. The majlis will take up discussion of the traffic law again later in the year. "They have to reply to my proposal," he says.

His hope rests on King Abdullah, the monarch who took over after the death in July of his half-brother Fahd. As crown prince, Abdullah, 80, appeared sympathetic to the plight of women and included a discussion of their rights in the National Dialogue, the forum he has sponsored. He has also opened up new avenues for their employment in a country where women make up less than 5 per cent of the workforce.

Saudi liberals say King Abdullah now has more authority to push ahead with reforms and overcome resistance within the royal family and the religious establishment. Activists have been encouraged by small steps adopted last month.

The Jeddah chamber of commerce decided women could run for elections to its board and, for the first time, the king's meeting with female academics and journalists was publicised, signalling his attitude towards segregation.

Since the 2001 attacks against the US, waged by a group of mostly young Saudis and which turned the world's attention to religious radicalism in the kingdom, the regime has faced pressure for social and political reform.

Liberal intellectuals have taken the opportunity to challenge restrictions on women in the name of Islam and to expose contradictions in religious prescriptions.

Mr al-Zulfa says his research into relationships between men and women before the 1970s oil boom shows that society was more integrated. "I found in a study of my village in the south that 80 per cent of men and women had married from outside the village, which means that there was a chance for young people to meet.

"I also found that men and women used to work together in fields and markets," he says. "All of a sudden we had oil and some people [religious scholars], to keep themselves busy, started saying that religion allows this and that. They put women in a very difficult situation and turned us into a closed society."

Many women say that driving is not their top priority but it is symbolic of discrimination. "The driving issue shows whether women are controlled or independent. Either you're a minor or you're responsible and if you can't drive you're a minor," says Hatoon al-Fassi, an activist.

In the past two years advocates of women's rights, such as Ms al-Fassi, have become more outspoken. A group of women who informally meet in a so-called "Sunday club" organised a campaign earlier this year to lobby for participation in the country's first nationwide municipal elections. The government decided to exclude them but only after admitting nothing in the election law prohibited women's participation. It also promised women would take part in the next elections, in four years.

The experience of the elections and the ability of Mr al-Zulfa to openly advocate that women should drive reflect what Ms al-Fassi views as the most important gain achieved by Saudi women in recent years. "Women's rights are now recognised as an issue and are no longer taboo," she says. "In the past there was always a denial. The slogan was that Saudi women are appreciated, that they live like queens, with drivers and all, and that they're envied all over the world."

By Roula Khalaf
Originally published: September 28 2005