In the 21st century, over 9 million women and girls – many of them highly educated and cultured in well-reputed universities in Europe and USA – out of a total population of 28 million don’t have the right to drive cars and work, rent or travel without the permission of their male custodians. Some international analysts and human rights groups say that these Saudi women live the life of the seventh century. In other words, they are treated as modern-day slaves, like the foreign labor working in the country.
The World Economic Forum ranked Saudi Arabia 10th from the bottom in its 2013 report on gender gap issues. One of the restrictions imposed on the Saudi women in particular is the ban on driving. Though the ban has not been issued formally, the Saudi police don’t issue any driving licenses for women and when seeing women behind the wheel the security officers arrest them and call their male guardians to sign a pledge not to drive a car again. Sometimes they are put behind bars for days or months.
Nevertheless, many Saudi women seem resistant to the idea of guardianship, defying the informal ban on women driving in the kingdom. Manal al-Sharif, a 34-year-old prominent female Saudi scientist, has launched a campaign calling for women’s rights in the country. Foreign Policy named her one of the Top 100 Global Thinkers of 2011. On October 26, she and other activists urged all Saudi women to stand up and take their destiny in their own hands and drive.
“I call it the ‘Women’s Spring’ in Saudi,” she says. “The al-Saud rulers are cracking down on dissidents out of fear that the waves from the Arab Spring will spread to the kingdom.”
"Though letting women drive cars seems a trivial thing to many people, for the Saudi royal family it is not"
But she remains undeterred. Saudi interior ministry spokesman, Turki al-Faisal, said in an interview with pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat that cyber-dissident laws “will be applied against violators'' while other measures will be taken against “those who gather to support'' the planned protest. However, Saudi women activists still protested against the ban with women driving cars in different cities in the country on 26 October. Thirteen videos of women driving cars in public have been uploaded on social media. In addition, about 16,000 Saudi women signed a petition that demanded the government lift the ban or give a valid and legal justification for the prohibition.
Though the Saudi government has pledged cautious but minor reforms allowing the women to run and vote in the next local elections in 2015, that wouldn’t live up to the expectations of the women who thought that King Abdullah was the reformist and human rights supporter he has declared to be.
"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," the monarch said in an interview with ABC News in October 2005, following his ascent to the Saudi throne. "I believe the day will come when women drive."
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But this day won’t come in the near future as the Arab Spring calling for human rights, freedom, and inclusion has destabilized many long-standing regimes. Moreover, recently, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef stated concerning this: "Rest assured that the issue is being discussed, and (I) expect a good outcome." But a top security chief stressed that the globally unique ban on driving for women was "a matter to be decided by the legislative authority," according to AFP.
Though letting women drive cars seems a trivial thing to many people, for the Saudi royal family it is not. The Saudi regime seeks to foil any attempt that could destabilize the status quo at home and the Middle East in general, sending its forces to neighboring Bahrain to repel the uprising against King Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa.
In addition to curtailing the Shia demonstrations in Qatif, located in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province, it is the first country to bless the ouster of Mohamed Morsi, Egypt's first civilian and Islamist president.
Moreover, the ruling Saudi Sheikhs think that giving concessions at this time would encourage many other communities at home to seek their own political, economic, and religious rights, like the two million Saudi Shias and millions of foreign labor seeking better work conditions, thus hurting the future of the 15,000 member Saudi royal family.
Furthermore, the government has spent billions of dollars on education, sending many Saudi citizens abroad to get education from the most prominent universities in the world, communicating with different cultures and democracies. And that would make the Saudi youth clamor for change in spite of ultra-conservatism supported by the hardliners.
The Grand Mufti declared a religious edict against women driving because driving would expose women "to temptation" and lead to "social chaos." No one deny that the secular Saudi rulers govern with the help of the clerics. They have a big role in drawing up strict Sunni Wahhabist laws in exchange for issuing fatwas helping the royal family when needed. The clerics declared in 1991 that the US forces are allowed to remain in the state. Moreover, at the beginning of the Arab Spring, the religious establishment has stated that demonstrations are un-Islamic.
But the relationships between the clerics and the royal family is not always good. Sheikh Saad bin Nasser Al Shathri has been fired from the country's high council of religious scholars by King Abdullah for criticizing the decision of the king to establish a research institution where males and females work and study together, saying that mixing of genders is a great sin and would divert males and females from the main goal.
Because Saudi Arabia is the world's largest producer and exporter of oil, the international community seems reluctant to take any measure against the oil-rich monarchy, thus affecting mutual strategic economic ties.