Saudi Women Driving in Saudi Arabia
Gender difference is strongly felt in Saudi Arabia than in any other place in the world regarding rights and obligations based on gender parity. The rules forbid women from driving their own cars without executive authorization from their guardians, which has to be endorsed by the government. A male guardian, possibly a father or husband defines the rights and duties to a woman in every jurisdiction of life. This aspect emanates from a societal principle, which is not a written rule, but functional according to the constitutional basis of specific institutions. For instance, the church, and is aimed at reducing chances of vulnerability to harm since the guardian is surcharged with maximum protection and decision making on behalf of their clients. For example, the women would solely require the guardian’s permission to travel as this is considered by the Saudi’s as a right. Hence, women are banned from driving on grounds of moral plight. Scholars argue that should women in the tyrannical monarchy be permitted to drive, the country would be plunged into a den of prostitution, homosexuality, and an infinite rise in divorce, and that after ten years of women driving, there would be no more virgins. Therefore, heavy penalties are put on those found guilty of driving including suspension from job, a ten year prison term or lashes at the back, with some losing their jobs completely. Life for Saudi women is hence an invariable state of contradiction.
This study assesses the aspect of driving as an undertaking that influences the lives of Saudi women, the societal view, and the factors underpinning the attempts towards liberation.
Women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to drive unless granted permission. This is in adherence with the societal convention, which relates this to a moral aspect. Driving among women is viewed as a source of moral degradation, citing increased prostitution, divorce and an end to the era of virgins.
With no law banning women from driving in Saudi Arabia, activists argue that there is nothing wrong with this. But the country’s religion rooted on a stern Wahhabi explanation of Islam, denies women from issuance of driving licenses with consistent fining of the offenders.
Proponents of the ban say that this is in line with stringent interpretations of the Koran which prohibits unrelated men and women from making contact. While the opponents to the ban site this as a denial of a right to movement, a costly affair being driven and a motive of dependence on opposite sex family members for rides.
Campaigns to have the ban eased have been ongoing although they are faced with challenges from the proponents of the ban, with prosecution of women found guilty of driving done in religious courts.
The first lawsuit to challenge women driving in a Saudi Arabia court which agreed to hear the petition had a lawyer defend the move, citing adoption to launch the activity of women into driving in small numbers in order to experiment enforcement. However, the conservative kingdom had no breakthrough in the campaign for the fundamental right and obligation for women to drive.
The women on their part struggle to get around the streets commuting from one point to the other with sparse taxis and with men refusing to drive a woman who does not encompass a chaperone. They have publicly campaigned for a ban through social media, for instance Manal al-sherif posted herself on the wall of you tube driving to the east of the country, although she was arrested and detained for 10 days. This elicited mixed reactions with several other women filming videos of them spinning the wheel after the detention in a move to sensitize the country on the way forward on lifting the ban. On the other hand,” Freedom drivers” planned to take to the streets in their vehicles in a move to promulgate the start of women to drive campaign, with greater determination to pay no attention to arrest threats in order to assert their rights. This is a resurgence of the 1990 demonstration which was staged by a movement that had the same implication, which bore no fruit. Supporters of this campaign are using twitter to track the substantial move towards attaining this noble goal. The women movement has received backing from the international community garnering hundreds of thousands of support from internet using countries and endorsing their petitions.
However, some women sit behind the wheel in the rural areas and in at the comfort of their compounds like the king Abdulla University for Science and Technology whose law and order is not mandated to the religious police, while others hire drivers from other countries to be their long time adopted employees, who are mostly strangers. However, this has proved futile bearing in mind the financial implication of the affair and the moral conflict put on entrusting a stranger, since families do not participate in the selection of a driver. The act has increased vulnerability of sexual affairs between the latter and the employer willingly or unwillingly, with incidences of rape being reported in some occasions.
With these constrains behind the ban, and with setbacks that befall the proponents of change, the activists are confident that Saudi Arabia would one day transform into a harbor of women driving themselves. In a positive move that could see the light of these chances, reports indicate that the Saudi authorities would form a commission that would look into the social issues affecting women including driving, even though the government has not confirmed the reports. The arguments thrown out by the officials were that, women are not allowed to possess a driving license but not to drive. The Saudi Arabia minister for the interior for instance stipulated that the controversy as a whole is an exaggeration, whose way forward is in societal attributes to handle the conflict and not an issue to breed a storm. But the whole convention relating to the activism does not herald confidence from the participants for fear of victimization.
The government did consider a proposal to adopt creation of a woman only bus system, but the proposal elicited mixed reactions with activists terming this as a scapegoat in handling the predicament of the women’s plight to drive, while some saw this as a move that would ease transport expenses and consequently reduce sexual harassment.
In conclusion, driving a car in Saudi Arabia is seen as uncovering the face, which is against the stringent interpretation of the Koran viewed as erosion of traditional values of the community. It is often viewed that a woman driving would loiter leisurely, interacting with non-mahram males for instance road accidents. Women are subjected to limited access to terminus services to limit their vulnerability to these haram men and where this is allowed, there is a separation in the entrance between men and women while some bus companies with wide coverage do not allow women boarding at all. On the other hand, critics do not see material sense in the ban arguing that it is not stipulated in the Koran, it looks onto the girl child in society, seeing no sense in women boarding a taxi which are considered unsafe, or she be driven by a man. The ban also diminishes employment opportunity of the girl child since commuting is a contributing factor towards attainment of career. The ban is also an extra cost of running a car as a woman is required to hire a driver, who is the tool of sexual harassment. The critics have launched a campaign that would see a lift on the ban through social media, while those who have been arrested and charged with the offence of driving are the champions of the reforms.
No matter the efforts by the opponents of the ban of women on driving, proponents including the scholars and religious leaders hold on to it citing this as the teachings of the holy book and a fundamental way of upholding morality.