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Saudi Wahhabis vs. Women Who Want to Drive Cars

12:13 PM, May 25, 2011 • By IRFAN AL-ALAWI and STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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Saudi authorities have arrested Manal al-Sherif, a courageous female subject of the kingdom who blogged about the demand made by her and others for the right of Saudi women to drive motor vehicles.

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Al-Sherif was detained last Saturday and rearrested on Sunday. In her 30s, she reportedly learned to drive while living in New Hampshire. Al-Sherif had joined with her colleagues to launch a blog titled "Teach me how to drive so I can protect myself."  The blog posted a YouTube video last week in which al-Sherif, living in Dhahran, the restive eastern province, protested the so-called "religious" ban on female motorists. 

The eastern province has numerous Shia Muslim residents who often protest against discrimination visited upon them by the Wahhabi sect, the state interpretation of Islam. But Dhahran is also the center of operations for Saudi Aramco, the oil monopoly that employs an army of Western technicians, and houses them and their families, including their wives and daughters. Predictably, Western oil experts living in Saudi Arabia do not raise their voices on issues such as whether women should legally be allowed to drive.

The title of the women drivers' blog is clever, because the argument against female motoring put forward by the Saudi morals militia, the brutal mutawiyin, alleges that the right to drive would encourage promiscuity and other vices. In reality, because women living in Saudi Arabia, whether local or foreign, must depend on male drivers, they are vulnerable to rape and other sexual harassment.

Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that prohibits women from driving. Tens of thousands of Saudi women own cars, but to drive them often have to disguise themselves as men. 

In addition, the drivers hired to work for Saudi women who own cars, including Muslims from Pakistan and other countries, as well as Christians and Buddhists from the Philippines, South Korea, and Sri Lanka, are also deprived of elementary rights. Foreign Muslims in such jobs may be crowded into dormitories and deported at will. Christians and Buddhists are prevented from building churches or temples, even though the countries Saudis call "the crescent of normality" -- from Kuwait to Oman -- allow free exercise of religions other than Islam, and Bahrain even has a small but influential community of Jews, who live and worship openly.

Saudi king Abdullah has achieved small reforms in the country he rules, including the inauguration last week of "the world's largest women's university," near Riyadh, the Saudi capital. The university is planned to accommodate 40,000 students and cost $5.3 billion to construct. It is named for Nora bint Andulrahman, sister of Ibn Sa'ud, the creator of the Saudi monarchy, and King Abdullah's aunt.

The current king enjoys considerable trust among Saudis, who sincerely believe in his reform program.  Their support has been an important factor in avoiding the spread to Saudi territory of the so-called "Arab Spring" -- which really began in Iran in 2009.

But the promise of change in the world's most influential Muslim land cannot be taken seriously while the Wahhabis and their "morals" thugs enforce such absurd practices as the ban on women driving.   

Even in Saudi Arabia, arbitrary abuses under color of religion must have an end.

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