Rumours that Saudi Arabia will lift ban on women driving

On November 6, 1990, some 30 years after girls’ education was introduced in the Kingdom, some 49 Saudi women formed a convoy of cars and drove through the streets of Riyadh. [1] It was during the lead-up to the Gulf War, when international media attention was focused on Saudi Arabia, and the women hoped to use this public demonstration to pressure society and the government into allowing Saudi women to drive.

Religious conservatives were incensed. The women were taken into police custody and their male guardians were summoned to retrieve them and take them home. The women had reportedly articulated their request to drive in a formal letter sent to Prince Salman, the Mayor of Riyadh and brother of King Fahd, the day of the demonstration (ibid).

But the women’s hope for intervention from the royal family was disappointed. Those who had participated in the demonstration were sanctioned with confiscation of passports and many were suspended from their jobs. The Saudi Ministry of the Interior subsequently encoded in law the previously unofficial ban on women driving, and the highest ranking cleric in the Kingdom issued a supporting fatwā (ibid p.32). Months later, after the uproar had died down, King Fahd quietly restored these women’s passports and their teaching posts (Gause 1994:162).

The 1990 driving demonstration was one of the most visible of internal political events in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a monarchical oil state in which political demonstrations are infrequent and rarely publicized. For the outside world looking into the black box of Saudi society and politics, the driving demonstration and the fact that women continue to be barred from driving symbolizes the inferior status of women in Saudi society.

Yet when I interviewed 30 Saudi women about women and social change in the Kingdom in 1994 (Wynn, forthcoming), most considered driving to be a non-issue. Instead, their chief concerns revolved around expanding opportunities for women’s education and employment in Saudi Arabia. What’s more, they bristled at criticism of the status of women in Saudi Arabia, and were frankly tired of Westerners fixating on the fact that they could not drive, with the implications of social “backwardness” that this entailed.

After the furor over the 1990 women’s driving demonstration, the issue was largely dropped for years, though periodically arguments in support of the continued restriction on women driving appeared in the local press. But in 2005 Mohammed al-Zulfa of the Saudi majlis al-shūra (consultative council) brought the driving issue to the fore of public discussions in Saudi Arabia by arguing that not only did driving put an economic burden on individuals and the country as a whole, because of the large number of foreign men who were hired as drivers, but that it was hypocritical for men to ban women driving on religious grounds but to nevertheless allow their wives to sit in the car with unrelated men.

The issue had been sensitive ever since the 1990 demonstration and al-Zulfa was the first prominent intellectual to revisit and challenge the decree against women driving in Saudi Arabia. According to news reports (the event was widely reported in the national and international media), the head of the majlis al-shūra ignored his question. Interior minister Prince Nayef declared that driving was not an important issue and, reminiscent of the criticism leveled at the women demonstrators 15 years before, criticized al-Zulfa for his timing in bringing up the issue.

Yet in recent interviews, King Abdullah has left open the possibility that the law would change in the future and Saudi women would gain the right to drive.

In 2008, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia remains the only country in the world where women are officially banned from driving, but if an article published yesterday in the Telegraph is to be believed, that is about to change. Stay tuned for updates on this tantalizing piece of news.

– L.L. Wynn

Notes:
[1] Accounts differ as to the exact number of women who participated in the 1990 demonstration, so here I rely on Eleanor Doumato (1992), who reports that the posters on the walls of Riyadh mosques condemning the women’s actions listed 49 women’s names.

References:

Eleanor Doumato, 1992. “Gender, Monarchy, and National Identity in Saudi Arabia.” British Journal of Middle East Studies, vol. 19, no.1, pp.31-47.

Gregory F. Gause, 1994. Oil Monarchies: Domestic and Security Challenges in the Arab Gulf States. New York: Council on Foreign Relations Press.

L.L. Wynn, forthcoming (2008). “Women in Saudi Arabia: Orientalism, Occidentalism, and the Political Discourse of Islam and Tradition.” Women’s Movements and Gender Debates in the Middle East and North Africa, Homa Hoodfar, ed. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, Contemporary Issues in the Middle East Series.

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