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Saudi Women Driving – Toward More Reforms?

4:31 PM, Oct 28, 2013 • By IRFAN AL-ALAWI and STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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On Saturday, October 26, news broadcasts around the world presented images that, innocuous in any other country, were revolutionary for the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Responding to an online petition titled “oct26driving.com,” at least 60 female subjects of the desert monarchy drove cars on the country’s streets and highways. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that forbids women driving.

Many participants in the demonstration video-recorded their experiences and uploaded them to YouTube. Two days before, on October 24, an obscure Saudi Interior Ministry spokesman, General Mansur al-Turki, warned that the country’s ban on women driving would be enforced, that women defying it faced arrest, and that all such demonstrations were prohibited.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the protest was, therefore, that it took place without significant repression, regardless of official threats. CNN reported that “authorities stopped five women who were spotted driving” in Riyadh. A city police representative said that the women were not taken to jail but “were kept in their vehicles” waiting for a “male guardian” or “mehram.” The latter is a family member with legal control over Saudi women’s personal activities, including permission to work, study in a foreign country, possess a bank account, marry or divorce, or receive medical treatment. The five Riyadh women were compelled to sign pledges not to drive again, then released to their “guardians.”

The same CNN account said two women drivers in Jeddah had been briefly detained at a police station, as well as a photographer, Samia Al-Moslimany. They too had to wait for their “guardians” to fetch them. Agence France-Press, citing official Saudi police sources, stated that six were stopped by police in Riyadh, plus six in the oil-rich Eastern Province, and two elsewhere, for a total of 16 women obstructed in their wish to drive. Some received fines of 300 Saudi riyals ($80) as well as having to be picked up by their “guardians.”

Perpetuation of “male guardianship” over Saudi women illustrates the inconsistent nature of social change in Saudi Arabia. Reform was initiated, with considerable popular backing, by King Abdullah after he ascended the throne in 2005. Ameliorative measures mandated by the ruler have been derided by some critics of the regime as minor in substance, however surprising their announcement, including introduction of women’s participation in the limited Saudi electoral system and reorganization of the judicial apparatus.

Still, in contrast with the long-standing image of a benighted Saudi Arabia, Samia Al-Moslimany remarked of her arrest on October 26 in Jeddah, “We were treated with respect and treated so professionally. . . . They spoke to us very kindly.” More promisingly, another woman, Mai Al-Swayan, an economic researcher in Riyadh, posted a video of driving to buy groceries. She said, “I drove on the highway and was noticed by a couple of cars but they were fine with it.” Other Saudi women drivers agreed that they had encountered little reaction.

As pointed out by numerous observers, the prohibition on women driving in Saudi Arabia is not established in law but in custom, imposed by the ultra-fundamentalist Wahhabi sect, which claims authority over Sunni Muslims, and remains the Saudi state religious institution. In 2011, 80,000 Saudi women were estimated to own cars and trucks, but the government has refused to issue drivers’ licenses for them. Some women have driven while disguised as men. Participants in the October 26 “test drive” had obtained drivers’ licenses abroad, including in the United States.

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