Driving while female can be risky

Saudi ban remains a stain on kingdom

By The Mercury

Eventually, it won’t be international news when women in Saudi Arabia dare to get behind the wheel. One day Saudi women who want to might even be able move around in public with their faces uncovered without fear of being stoned.

Saturday was a day of daring for Saudi women. It was on which some women — a tiny minority of them — drove in public. In the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where as recently as two years ago a woman was given 10 lashes for driving, it was an act of courage. Dozens did, and some even had themselves filmed, defying government warnings of punishments ranging from fines to more serious forms of prosecution.

How many women participated and how many were fined is the subject of conflicting reports.

Technically it isn’t against Saudi law for women to drive. Yet it’s banned anyway. At least one influential cleric last week warned of a conspiracy associated with women’s plans to drive Saturday, counter protests were planned and the interior minister warned of a crackdown. The participants pointedly declined to call Saturday’s event a protest because protests are illegal.

This isn’t the first time Saudi women have defied the ban on driving. The first such protest is believed to have occurred 23 years ago. The approximately 50 women who drove that day in 1990 spent a day in jail and lost their passports. Two years ago, several dozen women reprised the protest.

Since then, King Abdullah has granted women the right to vote — and to run for office — in local elections. Those are rights they won’t be able to exercise until 2015 and that don’t come close to making Saudi Arabia a democracy; still, they constitute important steps. The women who run for office in 2015, however, will have to find male relatives to drive them around when they campaign.

As symbolic as driving might be for Saudi women, it has practical implications as well. It’s particularly important for Saudi women who want to work, an activity we take for granted but which for many of them is limited. In 2011 when he granted women the right to vote, King Abdullah said he believed that one day women would be driving in the kingdom. That’s an interesting observation, but it’s no substitute for a royal decree.

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