Women are restrained as driving force and restricted from taking the wheel in Saudi Arabia

 

INSIDE THE DESERT KINGDOM:THEY ARE known as the ex-drivers. Nineteen years ago, 47 women drove in a convoy around Riyadh to protest against Saudi Arabia’s ban on women driving. They spent that night in jail. Most were fired from their jobs and they were denounced publicly as immoral women.

The stigma still remains, and many have experienced how being an “ex-driver” hampers work prospects, says Fawziah al-Bakr, a professor of education at King Saud university, as she sips juice after a yoga class on the women-only floor of a Riyadh shopping mall.

“This is a price that has to be paid for our struggle,” she shrugs. “I have never regretted taking part that day.”

Almost two decades later, the ban remains in place, making Saudi Arabia the only country in the world where women cannot drive.

It is also a nation where a woman cannot travel, appear in court, marry or work without permission from a male guardian, sometimes her own son. The kingdom adheres to an interpretation of Islamic law that stipulates a strict code of separation between the sexes, and requires a male guardian for women of all ages.

Most women I talked to in Saudi Arabia, whether reformist or conservative, agreed that greater opportunities have opened up for them in terms of education and work since King Abdullah, who last month appointed the country’s first female deputy minister, came to the throne in 2005.

Women may now travel abroad without a male guardian (though they still require permission from him), own their own companies, rent apartments and check into hotels unaccompanied.

The king has said he does not oppose allowing women to drive but that society needs to accept the idea first. There are signs that this may be happening.

A 2007 Gallup poll found that 55 per cent of Saudi men were in favour of women driving. A college student was hailed a heroine last year after she drove her badly burned father to the hospital. A Saudi princess recently declared in a local newspaper interview that she was ready to drive.

There is mounting speculation that the ban may be overturned before the end of the year, as the economic argument for its lifting becomes more compelling. It is estimated that hiring drivers for women costs the kingdom more than $3 billion a year.

Some women activists say the government should give them the option to drive, whether society approves or not, in the same way that the late King Faisal imposed education for girls on an unwilling populace in 1960.

Discussing the issue with Saudi men and women provides interesting and telling insights that go beyond the driving ban.

In this deeply conservative, religious and patriarchal society, much of the anxiety over women driving stems from fears that it could lead to an erosion of traditional values and social mores. Some Saudi officials and clerics agree that Islam does not forbid women from driving but many believe that women alone in cars would be more vulnerable to violence and abuse.

One young man told me, straight-faced, that Riyadh’s chronic traffic congestion would be much worse if women were allowed to drive. Another man said it could lead to all sorts of immoral behaviour and yet another insisted it would only exacerbate Saudi Arabia’s already high rate of traffic accidents.

Then there are the women who say they are happy with the status quo, arguing that they are treated like princesses. “Just because I don’t have your western lifestyle, that doesn’t mean I am oppressed,” says Susan Baaghil, Saudi Arabia’s first female professional photographer. She drove while living and studying in the US.

“We are pampered here, we are spoiled. A woman driving means more responsibility. If you look at it this way, it’s an advantage to not drive.”

Muna AbuSulayman, a former TV host who now works for Prince Alwaleed bin Talal’s philanthropic foundation, echoed the views of many Saudi women I met when she argued that, while women should be able to choose whether to drive or not, there are bigger battles to be fought.

“Driving is a symbol of choice but I don’t want to just live in symbols. We have a lot of practical things that we have to solve in order to get basic rights. What I care about more is the legal system. How can I ensure that the system will protect the most vulnerable in our society – and it is usually the women and children – when they have a problem?”

The infamous case of the so-called “Qatif girl” was a reminder of the precarious position women inhabit within the Saudi justice system. After the young woman from the eastern city of Qatif was gang-raped, she was sentenced to 200 lashes because she had been alone in a car with an unrelated man at the time of the attack. She received a royal pardon in 2007 after her case provoked international outrage.

But there are signs a new generation of confident and highly educated women, who account for more than half the number of school and university students and are now entering the workplace in unprecedented numbers, are pushing for a greater say in how they live their lives.

“Women are getting braver and more opinionated. They are not afraid to say what they think,” says Maha, a twentysomething bank employee in Riyadh.

Fawziah agrees, and says it is not just confined to major cities. On a recent visit to Qassim, one of the most conservative corners of the kingdom, she was struck by the ambition and determination of the young women she met.

Some activists want their country’s strict segregation of men and women lifted completely, while others prefer the increasingly common trend for women-only facilities including bank branches, hotels, shopping malls, spas and a soon-to-be-opened university built exclusively for female students.

Many reform-minded Saudi women refer to the Koran to argue that the economic, religious and political rights they seek were exercised by women at the time of Muhammad.

There is still some way to go, says Fatin Bundagji, the former director of a women’s empowerment unit at the Jeddah chamber of commerce. “Women are not the decision-makers. It’s true we are working but we follow orders because the decisions and the policies are made by men.”

For that reason, many will be watching closely as Nora al-Fayez, the woman appointed deputy minister for education last month, negotiates what have been until now uncharted waters for Saudi women. “It will not be easy for her,” admits one long-time activist. “But the fact it is happening at all is a major step forward.”

This series was supported with a grant from Irish Aid’s Simon Cumbers Media Challenge Fund