Arise, Women of Saudi!

Arise, and take the wheel!  Women, you may think it a drag that you have to drive yourselves everyday to and from work, to the g...


Arise, and take the wheel! 

Women, you may think it a drag that you have to drive yourselves everyday to and from work, to the grocery store and to pick up your children. You may resent the fact that you have to endure traffic congestions and the monotony of bumper-to-bumper crawls. You may take it for granted…until the right to drive is taken from you.

In Saudi Arabia, women are not allowed to drive and it is the only country in the world with such a ban. There is no outright rule that prohibits women from driving, but licenses are not issued to females, which really means, indirectly, that it is illegal for women to drive. Furthermore, in general, Saudi has a deeply religious society who reveres their religious leaders, and these scholars and authorities have issued edicts forbidding women from driving. One particular scholar, Sheikh Saleh Al-Loheidan, has even said that driving can damage the female pelvis and ovaries. He explained, “We find that for women who continuously drive cars, their children are born with varying degrees of clinical problems.”

These widely criticised comments were uttered around the time of the October 26 Campaign, an online petition to urge the lifting of the unofficial ban on women drivers. The activists behind the campaign claim that they have collected 16 600 signatures from active social media promotion. The number is small if compared to the 26 billion Saudi population, but it is a start.

A follow up to the October 26 Campaign is planned for 31 November.

One of the loudest spokeswomen of the campaign is blogger Eman al-Nafjan, who also connects with her audience via Twitter. On 26 October, she spent most of the day filming and uploading information about her experience. According to her, on the day before, many women contacted her who wished to be filmed driving. It appears that Saudi women have had enough of gender inequality in their country.
Eman’s tweeting could have gotten her into trouble. Some people reported her to the police and they were finally stopped. Initially unsure and worried about repercussions, she was relieved when the "police were smiling and easygoing, and their attitude was very positive. The police were really nice to us." Other women who were driving on that day reported that they were spotted by traffic police who did not take any action towards them. Eman takes these as signs that public attitude towards women are changing.

And then there are those who vehemently oppose the campaign. Perhaps the opposition may not be against women drivers per se, but because female drivers on the road are evident and mobile symbols that signify the end of male dominance in the society. One prominent sheikh, Nasser al-Omar, led 100 other sheikhs to appeal to the King in the royal court, to stop the “the conspiracy of women driving.”

King Abdullah, the reigning ruler since 2005, is considered to be progressive and a reformist, having passed laws regarding domestic violence, established a co-ed university and appointed a female cabinet minister in the short time that he is in power. He has openly stated that he wants to see female drivers on the road. But, in this day and age, not even a King can dictate society’s sentiments. He has, however, promised that women will have the rights to vote in the 2015 municipal elections. 

Even if women are finally allowed to drive, there will be the entire female population that needs to learn how to drive and to be issued licenses. One thing’s for sure, though, is that automakers stand to make huge profits when the time comes. Even now, luxury carmakers are enjoying growth in the GCC region, due to the growing GDPs and stronger spending power. According to the World Bank report in 2012, 45% of Saudis are women. The car market will see a big, big boom when these new drivers enter the market, requiring new cars, and automakers and auto aftermarket industries will be laughing all the way to the bank.

image: bbc.co.uk

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