Issue of women driving sparks ‘healthy’ debate in Saudi Arabia

Sunday 15/10/2017
Sensitive issue. A Saudi woman takes pictures of a car at a showroom in Riyadh, on October 5. (Reuters)

Abu Dhabi - The debate created by the issue of women being al­lowed to drive in Saudi Arabia has sparked “con­fusion,” which is “out­standing,” said Abdul Al Lily, an associate professor at King Faisal University in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia.
“People have started to be uncer­tain, which from an academic per­spective, is a healthy matter. It’s a healthy thing in a society,” Al Lily said.
Saudis are “confused,” Al Lily said, because people do not know what the implications of the royal decree allowing women to drive are. “People are worried about the ramifications,” he said.
In Saudi culture, there is an ex­pression that says you cannot judge something unless you are aware of it, Al Lily said, “and it is impossible to have a full awareness of women driving. This is why people are wor­ried. They are concerned about the future because they don’t know.”
Saudis are confused, Al Lily said, because they are not sure if women driving is purely a social issue or a religious one. “This is a main con­cern,” he said. “They want to un­derstand: Will the implications not be consistent with religious values and norms?”
Reuters reported that the decree “stipulated that the move must apply and adhere to the necessary sharia standards.” It gave no details but said a majority of the Council of Senior Religious Scholars — Saudi Arabia’s top clerical body — had ap­proved it.
Al Lily, who was born and raised in Al Ahsa in the Eastern Prov­ince, said his doctoral dissertation looked at technology and gender and how technology has connected men and women in Saudi Arabia, especially in academic environ­ments. He is the author of “The Bro Code of Saudi Culture: 300 Rules on How the Human Body Should Act Inside Arabia.”
He said Saudis will wonder how women driving will relate to other issues. “In Saudi Arabia, it is so­cially unacceptable if women cycle or ride a horse but now that driving is OK, does this imply that cycling is OK and horseback riding is OK? If women driving is fine but horse­back riding is not fine, how do you balance it? How do you make sense of it?” he asked.
Saudi society has experienced so­cial resistance when major changes are introduced. When female edu­cation was introduced, Saudis were confused, Al Lily said.
The Ministry of Education was established in the 1950s but the first state-run school for girls did not open until 1960. To make Sau­dis “a little more comfortable” with the idea of educating girls, Al Lily said conditions were set, including that education was not compulso­ry, meaning girls did not have to be educated.
When girls began attending class­es, it was under the Department of Religious Guidance not the Minis­try of Education, which oversaw the schooling of boys. It wasn’t until 2002 that the girls’ education fell under the responsibility of the ministry.
“The thinking was that we are going to teach girls but authorities who understand Saudi culture [the Department of Religious Guidance] are going to be in charge of it,” Al Lily said.
In his position as an associate professor at King Faisal University, Al Lily teaches a course on the his­tory of education and technology. He is passionate about his field and its implications on society and said the idea of women driving is a “fan­tastic issue to discuss.” He said it was the same as other “huge” is­sues Saudi society has faced.
“With the internet, there was social resistance; people did not want it to intervene in society,” Al Lily said. “There were campaigns. It was a huge thing. One person I know opened an internet café and it was as if he had opened a sex shop.”
Television and radio were also big deals, but women driving — just like girls’ education — is controver­sial because it is tied to females. “Anything related to women in Saudi Arabia is sensitive because the fundamental issue in Saudi Arabia is gender. If you want to do anything — and if you don’t show consideration to gender — you will face social resistance,” he said.
Al Lily said people in Saudi Ara­bia are always reminded of their sex. “Based on my research, gen­der and gender issues are the most important, influential and sensitive issues in Saudi Arabia,” he said. “This is why women driving is a major thing. I have never seen an­ything like this in my life in Saudi Arabia.”
Al Lily wondered, though, whether all women will drive. “For instance, it is not safe to drive on Saudi streets because it has been a male domain and, therefore, a competitive and aggressive street. This is why driving in Saudi is very dangerous. Maybe some women would like to drive, but they will not because they will not want to put up with the danger,” he said.
This debate is not just a genera­tional, religious or conservative is­sue. “There are so many stakehold­ers and beneficiaries,” Al Lily said.
“For instance, some women might support women driving even though they are conservative be­cause they do not have a father, husband or brother to drive them around town so driving is a practi­cal issue for them. It is a necessity, an economic reality,” Al Lily said.
This issue will raise questions within Saudi society because it is such a fundamental shift. “There is a Saudi expression that says it is not good to run on a path where there are so many potential nega­tives. Another expression says that it is not good to be exposed to something that might make you question your culture. These are two reasons that might discourage people,” Al Lily said.
Not all women want to drive and not all women like the idea of wom­en driving, he said. “This is im­portant. I have a feeling, I have no statistics to back this up but if you go beyond liberal people, people who were educated in the West or people who have been exposed to liberal ideas on the internet, I could guess that there are many women who don’t want to drive,” Al Lily said.
Saudi society is a collective soci­ety. “In a collective society, it’s not that you say: ‘I don’t want to drive.’ In a collective society, you say: ‘I don’t want to drive and I don’t want you to drive’. This is a problem in a collective society. They speak as one and they are responsible for each other,” Al Lily added.
In less than a year, Saudi women will be able to decide whether they want to sit behind the wheel but their choices may surprise some.
“This is something that the inter­national media might not want to hear but Saudi women who want to drive or don’t want to drive have their reasons beyond religion, be­yond politics, beyond simple ob­servations,” Al Lily said. “This issue has so many sides but it is a fantas­tic issue.”