One swallow does not a spring make. No more, indeed, than a modest number of brave, protesting Saudi women defying the authorities to drive their cars on Saturday signals an Arab spring in Riyadh. Just a straw in the wind, a sign that beneath the surface of the world’s least woman-friendly state things may be beginning to move. The women insist that they were not breaking the law, only convention – the protest was confined to women with licenses obtained abroad as the kingdom does not issue them to women.
Saudi Arabia, a hereditary monarchy, is the only country in the world where women are not allowed to drive. It also forbids them from travelling abroad, opening bank accounts or working without permission from a male relative. While 90-year-old King Abdullah has appointed some 30 women to the shura, the kingdom’s concession to popular representation, an unelected advisory council, and has opened up new job opportunities, he faces religious opposition even to the most modest reform.
Despite a 16,600-strong petition of support online, organisers faced abuse and threats on social media sites from conservatives, some 200 of whom held a protest last week outside the royal palace in Jeddah to object to the dangers of “westernisation”. One cleric, Mohammed al-Nujaimi, warned the campaign would lead to ruined marriages, a low birthrate, the spread of adultery, more car accidents and “the spending of excessive amounts on beauty products”. Another conservative, Sheikh Saleh bin Saad al-Lohaidan, adviser to an association of Gulf psychologists, bizarrely warned of the danger to women: “If a woman drives a car. . . that could have negative physiological impacts as functional and physiological medical studies show that it automatically affects the ovaries and pushes the pelvis upwards.”
Yet, in truth, resort to such dubious pseudo-sociological/medical arguments only draws attention to the real absence of any religious justification for this absurd driving prohibition. Islam most certainly does not require it.