Blogging from the Highlands of Scotland
'From fanaticism to barbarism is only one step' - Diderot

Monday 21 January 2008

Saudi Arabia may permit women to drive

One of the curiosities of living in Saudi Arabia (Jeddah in my case) many years ago was that women were not permitted to drive; that is still the case today, around thirty years later! Of course this caused frustration to women and I certainly know that many of the foreign women whom I knew (mainly the wives of colleagues or friends working for other companies or embassies) led rather bored lives because they weren't allowed to work either - a few did manage this trick, indeed we had a few working for our company, but very definitely on a 'need to know' basis. But of course some younger Saudi women, and their husbands, were also frustrated at the restrictions they lived under, specially those who had attended universities in either Europe or the US, and they used every opportunity to escape for a few weeks to other counrtries where they could be rather more relaxed. At home they had to conform - although a few did try and bend the rules, with young husbands allowing their young wives to drive on isolated roads. Fine until the religious police caught up with them - I witnessed that at the 'Creek' just north of Jeddah on quite a few occasions.

Anyway, it appears that a very slow programme of 'softening up' the Saudi population to the possibility that women might one day soon be permitted to drive seems to be making progress. The Telegraph reports today recent comments by the Deputy Information Minister, Abdulaziz bin Salamah:

"In terms of women driving, we don't have it now because of the reticence of some segments of society. For example, my mother wouldn't want my sister to drive.

"It's something she cannot grapple with. But there is change on the way. I think the fair view is that one can be against it but one does not have the right to prevent it."

Limited as this is, and however bizarre it would seem if it were sopken by a government official in almost any other country on the planet in the 21st century, I nevertheless recognise that it does represent a kind of progress in this very traditional Moslem (Wahhabi) society. Comments attributed to Mohammad al-Zulfa, a reformist member of the Saudi consultative Shura Council, indicate that he considers the possibility of reversing the driving ban to be part of a "clever" strategy by King Abdullah to bring about incremental reform:

"When it was first raised, the extremists were really mad. Now they just complain. It is diminishing into a form of consent."

Not everybody is convinced by these modest steps toward change! A letter in al-Watan ('The Nation') newspaper illustrates this only too clearly:

"Allowing women to drive will only bring sin. The evils it would bring - mixing between the genders, temptations, and tarnishing the reputation of devout Muslim women - outweigh the benefits."

Certainly when I lived there in the late 1970s I think such attitudes were pretty commonplace amongst most Saudis (possibly not some of the younger senior Princes and the growing numbers of the foreign-educated middle classes and merchant classes, though, but they generally kept their views on such matters strictly to themselves) and whilst I would wish to see the ban on women driving there to be dropped at once I think one has to recognise that the tensions in Saudi society probably mean that a process of gradual change is the correct one.

Not too gradual, however, I hope! Let's wait and see if the ban is overturned before the end of this year as the article indicates may happen - I hope it will be, but I'll not be terribly surprised if it remains in place for a while longer after that.

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