Saudis urged to allow women to drive

A Saudi newspaper urged the Gulf Kingdom on Tuesday to lift a long-standing ban on driving cars by women, saying Islam does not prohibit ladies from such activity.

Saudi Gazette, part of the Okaz group, one of the largest media establishments in the world’s top oil exporter, said there was no official ban on female driving in the country and that women face only social restrictions that have nothing to do with Islam.

The newspaper’s comment came as Saudi women stepped up a campaign to allow them to drive cars in public, with some of them sitting behind the wheel and driving their vehicles in key cities.

Women have also launched Facebook campaign to start ignoring the ban and drive their cars from June 17 despite the arrest of a leading female activist in that campaign this week.

“As the government has indicated several times, there is no ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia. In other words, the country’s traffic and governing legislation does not prevent women from driving a motor vehicle,” Saudi Gazette said.

“There is a social ban in place, however. This is the pressure from some fathers, brothers and other members of the family, preventing women from taking up this right. The government has said that it will take a change of heart from these groups of people for this unofficial ban to be lifted,” it said in a front-page editorial.

The paper said it has become essential for women to be able to drive, particularly those who are not wealthy and cannot afford foreign male drivers from Pakistan, India and other countries.

In many cases, these Saudi women have driving licenses obtained in other countries they have visited or where they studied, it added.

“Being able to drive will save them so much time, effort and money for simple errands like shopping and taking their children to school. More importantly, if there is an emergency, in a situation where a family member is ill, then they can drive this relative to a hospital.”

The paper said it also saw an economic need for permitting women to drive as this would enable them to participate fully in all aspects of life, adding this has become vital for this country’s development.

“There is no area of society where Saudi women cannot make meaningful and significant contributions. Many are talented and highly educated and are needed in all industries,” it said.

“Allowing women to drive will certainly help reduce the inordinate dependence on foreign labor, which has become an increasingly troublesome issue for the authorities.”

The paper said it believed allowing women to drive would not harm the society, recalling a similar ban on female education in the past.

“At one stage there was equal controversy over women studying and working. Now it has become increasingly commonplace – with the support of fathers and brothers,” it said.

“We support all peaceful efforts to help bring about this change in the country. There should be awareness campaigns run by government, the private sector and civil society organisations. There need not be a stand-off or confrontation on this issue if it is handled correctly.”

In a related report, Saudi Gazette and Okaz said women in the southern province of Asir close to the border or Yemen have developed driving skills over time in their remote area, where they drive almost every day with no harassment.

It was a simple need to drive that motivated them to learn how to do so, not a desire to defy social norms and traffic laws, they said.

“The needs of their families would at times compel them to drive beyond the countryside areas, either for shopping at town malls or getting treatment at hospitals,” Okaz said.

Rafah Al Qahtani, a mother of eight, told the paper that she had to learn how to drive after her husband died and left his car behind.

She said she never felt discriminated against or alienated for being behind the wheel.

“Now I can go shopping on my own, trade at the animal stock market and take my kids wherever they need to go..I do what men can do.”

Al Qahtani said that if she did not learn how to drive, she would have been begging men for favors.

“Had I left my destiny in the hands of men, my kids would not have gone to school or even to the hospital,” she said.

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