The Arab News, Saudi Arabia's largest English language daily, editorializes. Pasted below, the link to the story is here.
Editorial: The driving issue
Published: Sep 29, 2011 22:06 Updated: Sep 29, 2011 22:06Status of women provokes a great deal of comment within Saudi Arabia itself
There is no point trying to pretend that Saudi Arabia does not come in for a considerable amount of criticism from other parts of the world over the status of women in Saudi society — the issue of women not being allowed to drive, of women not being allowed a passport or leave the country without the permission of a male member of their family, of businesswomen having to have a male manager, of the restrictions on women lawyers. There are many more issues.
Much of that criticism ignores the fact that Saudi Arabia is, of its own choice, a very conservative society. It ignores too the fact that it is only relatively recently in Western countries that women have won the rights they now have. Women in the US gained the right to vote only in 1920, in UK it was in 1928, in France in 1944; in Switzerland, which claims to be one of the oldest democracies on earth, as recently as 1971. Compared to them Saudi Arabia is a young country.
The criticism also ignores the reality that the status of women provokes a great deal of comment and debate within Saudi Arabia itself. It is the hot issue.
Sunday’s historic announcement from Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah — a consistent promoter of women’s rights — that women will in future be allowed to vote and stand for municipal councils and be appointed to the Shoura Council, therefore, drew the attention of the world. It has been welcomed as a sign of the Kingdom’s commitment to reform and progress. It was unfortunate then that almost immediately afterward the next Saudi story the international media focused on was that of Shayma Jastaniah, the Saudi woman sentenced to 10 lashes for driving in Jeddah. It inevitably made comparisons between the decision on women voting and the sentence, claiming that the latter undermined the importance of the former and that there were contradictions on the position of women in the Kingdom.
Saudis too have said as much. It is now rumored that the Shayma has been reprieved. If true, it would be welcome news and would go some considerable way to undo the perception that Saudi Arabia is sending out mixed messages on the status of woman. The issue of women driving is not going to go away. It is not a question of if it will happen. It is a question of when. We would hope as soon as possible. But there are those who have different views — and they are not all men. It is an issue that has to be debated but that debate has to be carried out in a calm and dignified atmosphere. Clearly, reports of women being sentenced to be lashed for driving do not contribute to a calm atmosphere.
However, while the driving issue is not going to go away, it would be wrong to imagine that now that women are to have the vote, it is the top women’s issue. It has great symbolic significance but there are many other goals to achieve, some of them mentioned above. As a conservative society, Saudi Arabia moves slowly — but it moves. And, as has been seen time and again, the king is a champion of modernization and reform. That is reason for great confidence.
© 2010 Arab News