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 in the driver’s seat. They plan to petition King Abdullah in the next few days for that privilege.
Members of the Committee of Demanders of Women’s Right to Drive Cars say they want to have their petition delivered to the king by Sunday, Saudi Arabia’s national day.
“We would like to remind officials that this is, as many have said, a social and not religious or political issue,” said Fowziyyah al-Oyouni, a founding member of the committee. “And since it’s a social issue, we have the right to lobby for it.”
The government is not likely to respond to the plea because the issue is so sensitive and divisive. But al-Oyouni said the petition will at least highlight what many Saudi men and women consider as a “stolen right.”
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 rely on male relatives to drive them to work, school, shopping or the doctor’s.
The last time the question of women drivers was raised was two years ago, when Mohammed al-Zulfa, a member of the unelected Consultative Council, asked his colleagues to just think about studying the possibility of allowing women over age 35 or 40 to be allowed to drive — unchaperoned on city streets but accompanied by a male guardian on highways.
His suggestion touched off a fierce controversy that included calls for his 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 strange men, say women in the driver’s seat will be free to leave home alone and go when and where they please. They also will be able to unduly expose their eyes while driving and interact with strange men 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.
Interestingly, I don’t see at the NOW website any reference to this fight for women to have access to what has become a basic right around the world. Instead, NOW is simply agitating for the US Senate to ratify a non-binding UN treaty aimed at rescuing women in those countries that bother to sign on to the treaty in the first place (or, as NOW artfully phrases it, “CEDAW prohibits all forms of discrimination against women by legally binding those countries that ratify it to the following measures.”). I’m not surprised that the Senate is unwilling to sign on to this waste-of-time treaty. (And please note that this is a Democratic controlled Senate that’s not even bothering with this one.)