Saudi Prohibitions on Female Drivers Lessening

August 22, 2008 10:18 AM
by Anne Szustek
The story of a female Saudi college student driving to rush her father and two brothers to the hospital has played into the national debate over women behind the wheel.

30-Second Summary

Ruwaida al-Habis, 20, learned to drive on her family’s farm from her father, Hamad. So when he and her two brothers were seriously burned in a fire, Ruwaida did not think twice about breaking Saudi Arabia’s law forbidding women to drive.

At first, nurses at the hospital where al-Habis’s family members were treated were incredulous. She told the Associated Press, “Instead of focusing on the burn victims, the nurses kept repeating, ‘You drove them here?’”

Saudi law forbids women from driving on the grounds that it would allow unrelated members of the opposite sex to mix. The government does permit women to hire male chauffeurs, however, if they gain written permission from a close male relative. But women who cannot afford the $300-$400 per month for a driver must get rides from male relatives.

Al-Riyadh, the newspaper that broke al-Habis’s story, called her “brave,” and her father lauded her efforts. But some conservatives contend that if women were to get behind the wheel, they would be exposed to “immorality,” due to the possibility of eye contact or conversations with men.

In February, Sheik Abdul Mohsen al-Obaikan issued an edict saying that “in principle, women driving is permitted in Islam.” This marked a positive step in a decades-old movement for sexual equality on the road.

In 1990, 47 women in Saudi Arabia’s capital city Riyadh drove their male relatives’ cars down the street in unison. The mutaween, the national religious police, arrested them. Their passports were confiscated and they were forbidden to hold jobs for two years.

Some 16 years later, Saudi women took to the information highway in lieu of the paved one, and circulated an online petition to be sent to King Abdullah Al Saud. In January, female activists took up the cause again, and are pleading with the king to lift the ban sometime this year.

Saudi women have fought to achieve, and subsequently to retain, civil rights during the country’s 80-year existence. It has been a slow process. Women work in many sectors—albeit apart from their male colleagues—and account for over half the enrollments in the nation’s universities.

Mona Elthawy writes on, “Those young women and the driving petition gatherers were also serving notice to those in the West who believe that Saudi women are doing nothing to change their lot.”

A lifting of the ban would improve the economy as well as women’s mobility, according to Saudi British Bank chief economist Dr. John Sfakianakis.

According to Arab News, as of December 2007, Saudi women owned 120,334 cars. Many female Saudis already have drivers’ licenses from time studying and working abroad.

See CBS News coverage

Headline Link: ‘Saudi Women Get Behind the Wheel’

Background: Sharia law

Historical Context: ‘Women’s Drive for Rights is About More than Cars’

Opinion & Analysis: Cleric says no basis for female driving ban; female drivers represent economic opportunity


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