Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Saudi women's right to drive

This op-ed appeared in the English language daily the Saudi Gazette. The article is by Dr. Ali al-Ghamdi. He is commenting on an interview printed by the Arabic paper, Okaz, with one of the new female members of the Saudi Shura Council, Dr. Thoraya Obaid, about Saudi women driving. You can link to his op-ed here, and the text is pasted in below.

Last updated: Wednesday, April 24, 2013 12:05 PM

Written by - Dr. Ali Al-Ghamdi

A recent interview with Dr. Thoraya Obaid, a woman member of the Shoura Council, drew my attention. The interview, which appeared in Okaz newspaper, was about the right of Saudi woman to drive. The very title of the interview epitomized the content of her statement about women’s driving — “The dangers surrounding us are our prime concern than the issue of driving cars by women.”

I was surprised to read such a statement from the doctor at a time when we are looking forward to her and her fellow members in the Shoura Council with a hope that they would take up the issue of women’s driving as one of their priorities in the Kingdom’s consultative body. This is especially significant because Saudi women are the only women in the world who are deprived of this right despite the fact that Islamic Shariah does not forbid women from driving, as endorsed by a large number of Islamic scholars, including members of the Council of Senior Scholars. This topic has become a communal issue because of the fact that the society still remains a stumbling block in allowing a women to drive. But nobody explains to us as to why the community stands in the way of a woman from driving if she owns a car? There are certain situations where a woman is not in a position to hire a foreign driver either because of financial or social or religious reasons. Also, some scholars ruled that it is not permissible for a woman to travel along with a foreign driver in the absence of a mahram (close relative). In such cases, the ideal way for a woman is to drive by herself.

Coming back to the expression of Obaid about the dangers that were linked to allowing women to drive, I want to ask: What is the potential danger if we allow a woman to drive? Would the delay in granting a woman her right to drive or help to secure any other rights avert any danger or reduce its impact? Then what are the dangers about which the Shoura Council is discussing. We were following the Council’s deliberations through the electronic and print media but did not find any discussions that involve dangers to our country.

If we go down memory lane and review the issue of opening schools for girls, we can see that we had to meet with similar hurdles. In the beginning, it was said that girls’ education was a "taboo." Then, it was told that though Islamic Shariah permits it, the community won’t allow it. When King Faisal took a firm decision to open schools for girls, delegations from some regions came to meet him and asked him not to open schools for girls in their respective region. But he told them unequivocally that schools will be opened but there won’t be any compulsion on anybody to send his daughter to school.

However, after some time, there was not a single Saudi girl who stayed at home without going to school. When King Faisal took the decision to open schools for girls, there were “dangers surrounding us” as if fighter planes and bombs were striking parts of our country. But that did not deter King Faisal from giving girls their right to education.

Truly speaking, Obaid mentioned in her detailed interview that driving is a symbol for the right of women that enables a woman to reach her destination without any dangers. She also indicated that ours is the lone country in the world that does not allow women to drive. Our religion does not forbid women from driving but our customs do so as they control the situation. I wish to demand or at least poise to demand for taking a decision to allow women to drive following the example of King Faisal related to girls’ education.

I disagree with Obaid with regard to her linking of the women’s right to drive to the “surrounding dangers” because there should not be any question of bargaining while allowing one’s rights to him. All of us should avail of our rights, whether we used them or not. The demand to grant women their right to drive does not mean that all women would come out to streets with a car to ride.

As far as men are concerned, many of them are not used to drive for different reasons. Some of them are afraid of driving while some others have more than one driver to pick them up. As for some, they prefer public transport or limousine.

I won’t agree with those who oppose granting women their right to drive in the name of risks involved while driving, such as getting stuck on the road due to engine failure or such other problems. Some people ask what a woman would do in tackling such situations. It was a great surprise for me while listening to such arguments. I lived in a number of countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Yemen, and Turkey where I saw women driving, and some of them wearing veil or niqab while sitting behind the wheel. I never saw or heard about any woman faced any problem or subjected to dangers while driving. Hence why are we scared of something that would never happen? I do not rule out that there would be some problems in the beginning for those who practice driving but these will disappear with the passage of time. Stringent punitive measures could be taken against those who try to disturb women while driving.

I believe that even if women are allowed to drive, we cannot see a large number of women come out to sit behind the wheel in the beginning. This is because some of them are afraid of driving while some others need more time to learn driving. In the beginning, let the Saudi women, who learned driving and used to ride vehicles abroad, as well as expatriate women drive their cars. Granting women the right to drive would be helpful to a great extent to stop the campaign unleashed against us outside the Kingdom with regard to human rights, especially the rights of women.

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