The issue of women driving in Saudi Arabia
On November 6th, 1990, at about 4pm, 13 cars left a parking area of a shopping mall in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. In the vehicles were 47 Saudi women representing all walks of life: University teachers and students, elementary school administrators and teachers, businesswomen and housewives.
There were no male drivers. Behind the wheels were the women.
We all know the epilogue to that episode. Still, it was a gutsy move by women insisting on their rights. In November of 1990, the Saudi mufti declared driving by women unlawful. Based on his fatwa, the Saudi Interior Ministry enacted several regulations forbidding women to drive.
In 2005, an initiative to legalise driving by women was submitted to the Shura Council but the council refused to consider it. That year, however, the late king Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud told US journalist Barbara Walters that the day would come when Saudi women would be allowed to drive in their country.
Some were already doing so in the desert and rural areas. In January 2011, a Petition for Women to Drive was handed to Najeeb az-Zamel, who presented it to the president of the Shura Council. A total of 136 people had signed the petition. In a few days, that number was 3,500.
The initiative suggested solutions, such as restricting driving by women to certain hours of the day and to some cities or counties along with enacting strict regulations protecting female drivers from any harassment.
The initiative included a study highlighting the benefits to society at large when women were allowed to drive, in addition to eliminating having hundreds of thousands of foreign drivers in the kingdom. The initiative involved other practical solutions to administrative and technical obstacles.
The study touched on the religious point of view and concluded that there was no sacred text against women driving. It insisted on educating society that the decision to allow women to drive would in the end be a formal government decision protecting and enabling those who wish to drive.
In short, allowing women to drive made sense from economic, social and even security considerations.
The Shura Council is an advisory institution and, as such, must be trustworthy and truthful. We have requested that it look into the question of allowing women to drive because it would ease people’s lives.
On March 11th, 2011, Mishael al-Ali, head of the council’s petitions committee, invited me to a meeting with the committee to discuss our initiative. Sadly, he called back an hour later and politely cancelled the meeting. I do not doubt the good intentions of the committee head but he must have been subjected to pressure from extremist groups.
On May 25th, 2011, Ahmed bin Abdelaziz, deputy Interior minister, said at a news conference in Medina that “people have the right to demand authorising women to drive.” A week later, Abdullah al Sheikh, Shura Council president, declared that the “council was willing to examine the [issue] when requested to do so”.
The debate raged on. Prominent figures stepped up and courageously defended women’s right to drive. They agreed that there was nothing in Islamic jurisprudence to deny women this right; it was just a matter of observing tradition and majority views.
Where would we be now had we followed the extremists’ views when the first schools for girls were inaugurated? Would we have had outstanding ladies of the likes of Khawla al-Khuraya, Ghada al-Mutairi, Hayat Sindi, Lubna al-Ansari and Thoraya Obaid?
I share Suad al-Mana’s view that “the political authority must put an end to this debate and decide what is long overdue namely, allowing women to drive”.
The political authority has taken such courageous decisions before when it authorised girls’ education and issued personal identity documents to women.
The women driving project in Saudi Arabia has been making waves but has not moved forward and 26 years have passed without progress on the issue.
Saudi women are scientists in NASA, Olympians and UN officials but they cannot drive at home.