Mobility of Saudi Women
Women’s freedom of movement is very limited in Saudi Arabia . They are not supposed to leave their houses or their local neighbourhood without the permission of their male guardian, and company of a mahram (close male relative). However, out of necessity most women leave the house alone and often have contact with unrelated men to shop or conduct business.
Table of Contents
Saudi women and driving
While there is no law forbidding women to drive, the ban is based on a religious fatwa issued by conservative Muslim clerics, although it is often tolerated in rural areas. Most scholars and religious authorities have declared it haram (forbidden). Commonly given reasons for the prohibition on women driving include:
1. Driving a car involves uncovering the face which is considered obligatory for women to cover in Saudi.
2. Driving a car may lead women to go out of the house more often.
3. Driving a car may lead women to have interaction with non-mahram males, for example at traffic accidents.
4. Women driving cars may lead to overcrowding the streets and many young men may be deprived of the opportunity to drive.
Saudi women and public transportation
Women are generally discouraged from using public transport. It is technically forbidden, but unenforced, for women to take taxis or hire private drivers, as it results in khalwa (illegal mixing with a non-mahram man). Women have limited access to bus and train services. Where it is allowed, they must use a separate entrance and sit in a back section reserved for women. But the bus companies with the widest coverage in Riyadh and Jeddah do not allow women at all.Rachelle Kliger, “Saudis mull women-only buses” on gulf-times.com
Critics reject the ban on driving on the grounds that 1) it is not supported by the Qu’ran, 2) it causes violation of gender segregation customs, by needlessly forcing women to take taxis with male drivers, 3) it is an inordinate financial burden on families, causing the average woman to spend 30 percent of her income on taxis, 4) it impedes the education and employment of women, both of which tend to require commuting. In addition, male drivers are a frequent source of complaints of sexual harassment, and the public transport system is widely regarded as unreliable and dangeroushttp://books.google.com/books?id=qcOvIc-LP_IC&printsec=frontcover&q=&hl=fr
King Abdullah has said that he wants women to drive when the society is ready for it:
I believe strongly in the rights of women. My mother is a woman. My sister is a woman. My daughter is a woman. My wife is a woman. I believe the day will come when women will drive. In fact if you look at the areas of Saudi Arabia, the desert, and in the rural areas, you will find that women do drive. The issue will require patience. In time I believe that it will be possible. I believe that patience is a virtue. Interview of King Abdullah on susris.com
Advocates for the right of women to drive in Saudi Arabia collected about 1,000 signatures in 2008, hoping to persuade King Abdullah to lift the ban. But skepticism is common about Saudi Arabia’s deeply religious and patriarchal society, where many believe that allowing women the right to drive could lead to Western-style openness and an erosion of traditional values.Faiza Saleh Ambah, “Saudi Women See a Brighter Road on Rights” on washingtonpost.com
On International Women’s Day 2008, Saudi feminist activist Wajeha al-Huwaider posted a youtube video of herself driving in a rural area (where it is allowed), and requesting a universal right for women to drive. She commented: “I would like to congratulate every group of women that has been successful in gaining rights. And I hope that every woman that remains fighting for her rights receives them soon.
“Imagine a reporter who cannot drive. How will we beat the competition when we are always waiting to be picked up by someone?” Reporter Ebtihal Mubarak. Afshin Molavi, “Young and Restless: Saudi Arabia’s baby boomers, born after the 1973 oil embargo, are redefining the kingdom’s relationship with the modern world” on Smithsonian.com
In early 2010, the government began considering a proposal to create a nation-wide women-only bus system. Activists are divided on the proposal, some saying it will reduce sexual harassment and transportation expenses, while facilitating women entering the workforce. Others criticize it as an escape from the real issue of recognizing women’s right to drive.
Many of the laws controlling women apply to citizens of other countries who are relatives of Saudi men. For example, the following women require a male guardian’s permission to leave the country: American-citizen women married to Saudi men, adult American-citizen women who are the unmarried daughters of Saudi fathers, and American-citizen boys under the age of 21 with a Saudi father. Saudi Arabia: Country Specific Information on travel.state.gov
In the news
On May 22, 2011, Manal al-Sharif, one of the organizers of the women’s movement (Women2Drive) for the right to drive was arrested in Dammam and held for ten days on charges of disturbing public order and inciting public opinion by twice driving in a bid to press her causeNeil MacFarquhar, “Saudis Arrest Woman Leading Right-to-Drive Campaign” on nytimes.com, May 23, 2011.. Al-Sharif had posted a video of herself driving her car in Khobar. The campaign she launched is aimed at encouraging women to start driving from June 17, using foreign-issued licences“Saudis arrest YouTube activist challenging ban on women drivers” on guardian.co.uk, May 22, 2011.. Al-Sharif’s movement has inspired other Saudi women to post videos of themselves driving which can be found on the SaudiWomen2Drive YouTube channel.John Hudson, “Saudi Women’s Rights Activist Drops Driving Rights Campaign” on theatlanticwire.com on May 31, 2011 However, upon her release from the authorities, Al-Sharif released the following statement in the Saudi edition of the Al Hayat newspaper (translation provided by Zaki Safar, as published in the New York Times): “Concerning the topic of women’s driving, I will leave it up to our leader in whose discretion I entirely trust, to weigh the pros and cons and reach a decision that will take into consideration the best interests of the people, while also being pleasing to God, and in line with divine law.”Robert Mackey, “A Saudi Activist, in Her Own Words” on nytimes.com, May 31, 2011 Despite the arrest, many Saudi women showed their support for lifting the ban by getting behind the wheel and driving their families’ cars around the city on June 17th, 2011. Some drove themselves to work or to the supermarket and many made sure they had all of the necessary papers in case they were stopped and arrested.“Saudi Arabia Women Drive Cars in Protest at Ban,” on www.bbc.co.uk, June 17, 2011