The Blog

Saudi Women Driving – Toward More Reforms?

4:31 PM, Oct 28, 2013 • By IRFAN AL-ALAWI and STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The bar on women driving is known to be ignored frequently in rural Saudi Arabia, where women in motor vehicles have escaped the scrutiny of the so-called “religious police”—officially, the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. In the past they were also referred to as “mutawiyin” or “volunteers,” but King Abdullah’s reforms removed the voluntary, unpaid Wahhabi fanatics from their ranks.

Ambiguities facing Saudi women seeking to drive reflect the uneven and unpredictable character of the royal reform program. The massive King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) opened near Jeddah in 2009, with the right of women to drive on the campus, mixed-gender classes, no requirement for women to wear the face veil, or niqab—another obnoxious symbol of Saudi backwardness—and instruction exclusively in English.

But in a video interview by USA Today, Tamador Alyami, a Saudi woman blogger, who was among those posting a clip showing her driving her car, said the authorities “are giving us confusing messages. There is nothing clear about it, no clear law, no clear punishments, so the message is not clear.”

The Saudi contradiction was underscored by the video of Alyami driving, disseminated by the “October 26 Driving Campaign,” in which the young woman operated her automobile while wearing the black, full-body covering or abaya, and a niqab hiding her face. Even if Saudi women are allowed behind the wheel of a vehicle, they may still be kept behind the barriers of Wahhabi-mandated mode of dress.

The online petition for women’s driving rights was signed by 16,000 people but was then hacked by a defender of Wahhabi hegemony and painted with red lightning bolts indicating, presumably, divine punishment. Tthe bid to end discrimination against women motorists was also condemned by obtuse Wahhabi clerics.

For example, sheikh Saleh Al-Luhaidan, among the hardest-line Wahhabi intransigents, made himself, his country, and his religion look ridiculous by declaring that women should not drive because of risk to their ovaries and pelvis. Prior Wahhabi objections to women driving have included encouragement of sexual promiscuity and even prostitution.

In anticipation of the women’s driving protest, about 150 Wahhabi religious figures assembled before the Saudi royal palace on Tuesday, October 22, criticizing the women’s effort. The complaints of the Wahhabis included the nonsensical charge by Nasser Al-Omari, one of the most voluble Saudi radical agitators, that the designation of a Western date for the women’s touring event, rather than its Islamic equivalent (which would have been Dhu l-Hijjah 21, 1434), revealed the hand of the West in the movement.

Nevertheless, another and more powerful cleric, sheikh Abdul Latif Abdul Aziz Al-Sheikh, appointed by King Abdullah as the new head of the “religious police” with a specific duty to end its abuses, said in September that there is no basis in Islamic law to deny women the right to drive.

Humor was introduced into the controversy when a Saudi entertainer, Hisham Fageeh, posted a video of him and his friends performing a parody version—“No Woman No Drive”—of Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry.” The song ridiculed Wahhabi strictures, especially, the claim of Al-Luhaidan that driving would harm a woman’s reproductive capacity.

Recent Blog Posts