Saudi Women See a Brighter Road on Rights

Group Says King May Lift Driv­ing Ban by Year’s End

The Washington Post - - World News - By Faiza Saleh Am­bah

JID­DAH, Saudi Ara­bia, Jan. 30 — Buoyed by re­cent ad­vances in women’s rights, ad­vo­cates for the right of women to drive in Saudi Ara­bia — the only coun­try in the world that pro­hibits fe­male driv­ers — say they be­lieve the ban will be lifted this year.

The women’s group has col­lected more than 3,000 sig­na­tures in the past five months and hopes that King Ab­dul­lah will is­sue a royal de­cree giv­ing women the right to drive.

Since tak­ing the throne in 2005, Ab­dul­lah has cham­pi­oned women’s right to work and of­ten takes of­fi­cial trips over­seas with del­e­ga­tions of fe­male jour­nal­ists and aca­demics. The king has said that he does not op­pose al­low­ing women to drive but that so­ci­ety needs to ac­cept the idea first.

“I think the au­thor­i­ties want peo­ple to get used to the idea and will lift the ban be­fore the end of the year,” said Wa­jeha al-Huwaider, 45, an ed­u­ca­tional an­a­lyst and co-founder of the group.

The group, which sent the king pe­ti­tions in Septem­ber and De­cem­ber ask­ing him to lift the ban, is work­ing on a third. “Ev­ery time we gather 1,000 sig­na­tures, we will send them,” Huwaider said.

She and co-founder Fouzia al-Ay­ouni said they were en­cour­aged by the re­cent eas­ing of cer­tain stric­tures on women and state­ments from se­nior of­fi­cials say­ing the driv­ing ban is more so­cial than re­li­gious or po­lit­i­cal.

In Novem­ber, the for­eign min­is­ter, Prince Saud al-Faisal, told Bri­tain’s Chan­nel 4 news that there was no Saudi law pro­hibit­ing women from driv­ing.

“My­self, I think they should drive,” he said, but added: “For us, it is not a po­lit­i­cal is­sue, it is a so­cial is­sue. We be­lieve that this is some­thing for the fam­i­lies to de­cide, for the peo­ple to de­cide, and not to be forced by the gov­ern­ment, ei­ther to drive or not to drive.”

Saudi Ara­bia fol­lows a strict form of Is­lamic law that does not al­low women self-guardian­ship, man­dat­ing a male guardian for women of all ages. A wo­man can­not travel, ap­pear in court, marry or work with­out per­mis­sion from a male guardian, some­times her own son.

Un­til re­cently, women were also barred from check­ing into ho­tels and rent­ing apart­ments un­less they were with a male guardian. But a royal de­cree an­nounced this month now al­lows women to stay in ho­tels and fur­nished apart­ments un­ac­com­pa­nied.

The news­pa­per Al-Watan re­ported last week that a cir­cu­lar has been is­sued to ho­tels ask­ing them to ac­cept women who show iden­ti­fi­ca­tion. The ho­tel is then re­quired to reg­is­ter the women’s de­tails with the po­lice.

But in this deeply re­li­gious and pa­tri­ar­chal so­ci­ety, many be­lieve that al­low­ing women the right to drive could lead to West­ern-style open­ness and an ero­sion of tra­di­tional val­ues.

Many women com­plain that driv­ing is a ne­ces­sity and ar­gue that not ev­ery­one can af­ford to hire for­eign driv­ers, whose salaries range from $300 to $600 a month, plus room and board. Livein chauf­feurs, of­ten from the Philip­pines or the In­dian sub­con­ti­nent, are con­sid­ered un­likely to de­velop re­la­tion­ships with the women.

Sev­eral times a week, Haifa Osra, 31, one of the first mem­bers of the group, walks 10 min­utes from her apart­ment to an In­ter­net cafe to sort through the de­tails of the women who have signed the latest pe­ti­tion.

This week, she ap­proached four women at the Cof­fee Bean and Tea Leaf and asked them to add their names.

Haifa Khashoggi, 48, a home­maker, agreed that women should be al­lowed to drive, “but with con­di­tions.”

The other women con­curred, say­ing that ini­tially only women older than a cer­tain age should drive, and not at all hours.

“It’s safer and more Is­lamic for me to drive my­self than to sit with an un­re­lated male driver,” said Nadia Nu­sair, 45, a con­sul­tant on ed­u­ca­tional and fam­ily is­sues.

“It will be chaos at first,” said Ibti­sam al-Sharif, 47. “But pretty soon, driv­ing will be ac­cepted and ev­ery­one will find it nor­mal.”

BY FAIZA SALEH AM­BAH — THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Haifa Osra, left, asks women at a cof­fee shop in Jid­dah to sign a pe­ti­tion press­ing for the right to drive.

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