The problem of women driving in Saudi Arabia is quite relevant in today’s world, and so is any issue related to feminism. The lives of the weaker sex are totally controlled by men: women in this kingdom are required to live and move about outside the house with a male guardian – a relative or husband. Male guardians play an important role in all aspects of a woman’s life. Without an agreement of the guardian, a woman cannot get an education, get a job, move within the country, travel abroad, open a bank account and even make a scheduled operation.
Even in such hostile conditions, women manage to speak their words, which are sometimes followed by punishment. However, the activity of protesting groups has already led to some positive changes. For example, in 1960s King Faisal provided education for Saudi girls (Buzbee). Moreover, women in Saudi Arabia now can work in many spheres that were previously unavailable. In this regard, the issue of women driving becomes especially urgent. In order to access the place of education or work, they have to rely on hired drivers, or on male relatives. Therefore, the paper aims to research contradictions arising in conservative and progressive societies concerning the issue of women driving. For this end, the research will present the cultural and religious background of the prohibition, major laws and restrictions regulating the issue, cases of breaking bans and respective consequences. The paper will also represent the perspective ways of resolution of the issue in Saudi Arabia.
The form of governance presently existing in Saudi Arabia makes it clear that this country is absolutely patriarchal and conventional. Of course, one can not deny the importance of family ties, customs, religion, and traditions that are promoted in the kingdom. However, such traditional values do not always work in women’s favor.
Women’s rights in Saudi society are based on Sharia (Islamic law), the Quran, the Hadith (teachings of the Prophet Muhammad), and tribal laws. Sharia law is interpreted in a strict form of Sunni Islam as a righteous way of the Salaf. Since the country has no clear laws, the judges have considerable discretion enabling them to solve problems, as a rule, in favor of tribal customs.
The Quran clearly indicates that the woman is completely equalized with a man in the face of Allah in their rights and responsibilities. What makes them different is headship. The Quran gives men the right to control women and influence their behavior in different ways; for example, if the husband is dissatisfied with the behavior of his wife, he is entitled to condemn her.
In this regard, it is important not to confuse Islam as a faith, sent down by Allah in the Scriptures, with folk traditions. A tradition that has evolved in Islamic regions often has little to do with the original doctrine. For example, according to the Quran, it is really not permitted to wear tight-fitting or revealing clothes, but the religious text says nothing about the veil or about its black color. It is a cultural tradition, rather than a religious belief that a woman’s body must be completely covered, leaving only the face (and sometimes only the eyes) open. If a woman does not comply with this rule, in some especially strict Islamic countries (including Saudi Arabia), she can face public insults in the form of words or actions on the part of the Muslim community and be arrested by religious police.
In Islam, like in any other traditional society, women have to see to the house. Generally, they get great pleasure from doing housework and keeping order in the house. It is believed that a woman should make her home aesthetically beautiful and well-groomed. It is not so much a duty as a woman’s right that she willingly and joyfully undertakes. She has to be pleased to do it, and she has to love the house.
Nonetheless, one cannot say that the existing discrimination against women is based on religion, as in the sacred texts there are no such restrictions, which are now attributed to women. Moreover, even Prophet Mohammad’s wife had the right to actively participate in social and public affairs, which modern Saudi women are deprived of (Bowen 10). Therefore, depriving women of many natural human and social rights in Saudi Arabia is rather a cultural phenomenon. This statement is confirmed by the fact that other Islamic countries such as Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates do not feature such strict prohibitions (Buzbee).
Conservatives think that enabling a woman to drive a car will make her leave home more often and thus will change a long-standing order. They seek to preserve, as they claim, the traditional values of Islamic culture and law, as they believe Saudi Arabia, as the center of the Islamic world, should be an example of the strict observance of conservative values. At the same time, activists-supporters of sexual equality compare the rights of Saudi women with slavery.
Sometimes, rigidity of conservatives is absurd. They motivate their refusal to give women the right to drive by the fact that they worry about the weaker sex to be raped. The members of an influential religious council of Saudi Arabia claimed that if women were allowed to drive a car, it would trigger the growth of such phenomena as prostitution, pornography, and homosexuality in the country. Also, according to the clergy in Saudi Arabia, the number of divorces and extramarital affairs will substantially increase. In general, they believe that interaction with men who are not relatives, determined by driving duties (e.g. at the gas stations or car service centers), will result in moral corruption (Buzbee).
Laws and Restrictions
In fact, in Saudi Arabia there is no law that prohibits women to drive. The situation is much more banal: they just do not issue driving licenses for women. And this, in turn, creates a global problem with movement and transportation. For breaking such unofficial prohibition, women can be fined, detained and put on trial with all the consequences that come with it.
The problem becomes much more complicated given the fact that women, as a rule, cannot use public transport, although in practice taxi or the service of private driver are commonly used, which, however, is considered undesirable. Moreover, this practice is believed to be quite pricy: 35% of women’s monthly income is spent on private drivers and taxis (Kliger). Women have limited access to buses and trains. For women, there are special sections with separate entrances, which are located at the back (Baki 3). Bus companies serving the largest part of Riyadh and Jeddah, do not serve women (Kliger). The government began to consider a proposal to establish a nationwide bus system for women only called Hafilati (“My Bus”). It is reported that it will employ male drivers (Kliger). Activists are divided in opinion: some supported the idea, arguing that it would reduce the incidence of sexual harassment of taxi drivers and passenger fare. Others criticize it, arguing that it is an escape from the real issue of the recognition of women’s right to drive (Kliger).
As mentioned before, due to statutory uncertainties, the solution on each case of breaking driving rules differs. For example, back in 1991, for women rights activists were repressed. Forty-seven Saudi women illegally traveled by car along the streets of Riyadh to stage their protest against the ban on woman driving (Wilson 248). The activists presented a petition to King Fahd, requesting basic legal and social rights for women. Subsequently, the team leader was arrested and tortured. Fundamentalists demanded severe punishment for women and called them “prostitutes”. Islamic religious police started to conduct a more aggressive policy against women (Wilson 249).
In July 2011, a woman from Jeddah was sentenced to ten lashes for driving a car (“Two Women Referred to ‘Terror’ Court for Driving in Saudi Arabia”). This caused a public outcry, because before that she was required to sign an undertaking that he would never drive a car again. Punishment by flogging began to be applied after the actions in support of women’s rights in June. King Abdullah promised to protect the rights of women and quashed the judgment (“Two Women Referred to ‘Terror’ Court for Driving in Saudi Arabia”).
In September 2013, a group of 16 women activists organized a rally. Several dozen of Saudi activists got behind the wheel and drove along the streets of the capital to express their protest in this way. Some of them posted a video of their trips on the Internet, despite the warnings of the authorities. According to some sources, the number of potential participants of the rally seriously reduced after threatening telephone calls. For their actions, the women were deprived of passports, which in its turn prevented them from leaving the country for months afterward (Buzbee).
Meanwhile, the case of two women living in Saudi Arabia, who had violated a ban on driving, were passed to court dealing with terrorist activities in late December. However, it was reported that formally Loujain al-Hathloul (25 years old) and Maysa al-Amoudi (33 years old) were accused of voicing their own opinions on the Internet, but not of violation of the driving prohibition. It should be mentioned that their campaign on Twitter was aimed at support the right of women to drive (“Two Women Referred to ‘Terror’ Court for Driving in Saudi Arabia”). Subsequently, in February, after two months of detention, the women were released. This happened with the help and support of activists.
Conservative tendency to leave things as they are does not satisfy everyone, although the presence of a fairly large-scale layer of such citizens can not be denied. Mostly, people see the solution in reforms. For conservatives, the best way is to develop the system of women-only buses, which is believed to be accessible to some 75% of women in Saudi Arabia, including both residents and foreign visitors (Kliger).The estimated savings of 70% the Saudi women’s expenditures on transportation will be a positive result anyway (Kliger). If introduced within five years it will operate 600 buses in all Saudi cities, carrying some 2.5 million Saudi women a year (Kliger).
On the other hand, in order to satisfy activists and make the lives of Saudi women easier, it is suggested to legally allow women to drive. For instance, Neaz Rooqaf claims that the adoption of a law on the rights of women at the wheel is only the beginning of large-scale and problematic reforms. He identifies four stages of the implementation of the new law. The first stage, according to the author, is the establishment of an appropriate framework. Basically, it includes institutions training both female drivers and police officers to provide safe interaction. The second stage is called “Easing into it” and provides testing of the program. The third stage is aimed at enlarging the number of cities involved in the program, at the same time restricting movement of women through their borders without a guardian (Rooqaf).
To the present time, most Saudis oppose the creation of mixed jobs and the right of women to drive cars. Many women like this kind of life. The position of women in Saudi can be compared with the position of the child in European and American society. They have no right to vote, it is difficult for them to travel alone, women have no right to study, work or go abroad if their husbands or relatives do not give permission, but in many ways their life is therefore easier. Most women actually want to wear the veil and are not interested in occupying high positions for the reason that Saudi citizens view their country as the embodiment of the ideal of pure Islamic nation and believe that the entitlement of women with new rights is an additional step towards Westernization of the country, which the Saudi society seeks to avoid.
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Princess Lolwah Al-Faisal described her views as moderately conservative, advocating for reforms, which will correspond to the norms of Islam. However, Lolwah supports women’s suffrage in municipal elections. During an interview, the princess was asked what she would do, if she were a queen for a day. She said, “First thing, I’d let women drive” (Buzbee).
Thus, in view of the issue discussed above, every author claims that the problem of women driving in Saudi Arabia requires immediate solution. Current state of affairs is not beneficial even for conservatives because, being deprived of the right to drive a car and not provided with appropriate public transport, women sometimes become the victims of sexual harassment of taxi drivers. Both creation of public transportation and issuance of driving license to women require elaboration of an appropriate framework. The obstacle on the way to legal consolidation of the women’s right to drive is also the opposition of the conservatives. However, even if the King issues the law enabling women to drive, this will not mean that each woman would have to exercise this right. Those who have the opportunity to be driven by male relatives or hired drivers will follow their customary practice.