Women behind the wheel? Saudi king’s advisers call for end to driving ban

Women behind the wheel? Saudi king’s advisers call for end to driving ban
A proposal to end Saudi Arabia’s informal ban on female driving was voiced at the country’s advisory council. Rights activists have been calling for decades to give women more mobility, a notion resisted by the ultraconservative clergy.

Saudi written law does not have an explicit prohibition on women driving. But in practice the country, which lives by a strict version of Sunni Islam, called Wahhabism, does not allow women to travel, apply for work or education, get admitted to a public hospital or do many other things without a permit from a male guardian, usually a husband, brother, father or uncle.

Traffic police do not issue driving licenses to women in Saudi Arabia and do not recognize foreign driving licenses, effectively amounting to a ban. While a woman driver may be seen in rural areas, where the restriction is not heavily enforced, taking the wheel in a large city is likely to land her in a lot of trouble. Those defying the ban are publically shunned and sometimes imprisoned. In 2011 a Saudi woman was sentenced to 10 lashes for driving.

But an increasing number of women are campaigning to abandoning the prohibition, and they have support in official circles. On Tuesday, a proposal to discard the ban was voiced at the Shura Council, a 150-stong body of advisors appointed by Saudi Arabia’s monarch.

The council, which has no legislative power of its own, had 30 women appointed as its members for the first time in January. One of those female advisors, Latifa Shaalan, suggested that the Shura Council’s transport committee should recommend allowing women to drive.

"Nobody raised their voice or opposed it. I think people were expecting it," said Hanan Ahmadi one of Shaalan’s female colleagues. "I believe she received many notes of support afterwards from other members."

The proposition comes amid the latest online campaign to allow women to drive. A petition to scrap the ban launched last month has so far gathered some 15,000 signatures. More daring female activists are being called to take to the streets in cars on October 26, even though previously similar actions faced reprisals from the authorities.

Opposition to female driving remains strong in the Gulf kingdom. Recently a prominent Saudi sheik claimed that medical studies show that driving has adverse effects on women's ovaries because it forces the pelvis upward.

Proponents argue that the ban has no basis in Sharia law and puts an unnecessary burden on family budgets by forcing women to use taxis. It actually goes against the sex segregation goals of the conservative clerics, they say, since women travelling without male relatives have to stay alone with the male taxi drivers or subject themselves to potential harassment on public transport.

"It is flawed that a woman cannot drive a car after reaching the position of deputy minister, becoming a member of the Shura Council, managing a university and representing the country on international bodies," Shaalan said.