Saudi Women Drivers: Threat to State Religion and Politics

As Saudi women's October 26 right to drive campaign accelerates, a novel argument has taken off in favour of the ban on female drivers. Conservative cleric Sheikh Saleh bin Saad al-Lohaidan claims that driving poses a risk to women's ovaries as it pushes up the pelvis, and could cause birth defects in unborn children.

This pronouncement is in keeping with that of Iranian cleric, Hojatoleslam Kazim Sadeghi, who claimed that earthquakes were caused by women's immodest dress, which led to promiscuity. It is also congruous with a society where beheadings are punishment for sorcery and foreign housemaids charged with witchcraft were sentenced by a Saudi court to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes.

For many Saudi women, mobility is restricted by inadequate public transport and the cost of chauffeurs. The petition associated with the "October 26 Driving" campaign has reportedly attracted 11,000 followers through Twitter, and urges the government to allow women to drive a car. It also demands an explanation for the legal basis of the ban.

In 2007, Saudi feminist Wajeha Al-Huwaider presented a petition to King Abdullah, noting that in the past, Muslim women had used whatever mode of transport was available to them, without infringing religious doctrine. She collected signatures for the petition in public areas and via an Internet appeal, despite harassment, intimidation, and repeated blocking of the e-mail address. The petition received wide international media coverage but a government promise to rescind the driving ban the following year was never kept. Al-Huwaider has also campaigned against the mahram or guardianship laws that give male kin control over women's daily lives, including permission to travel outside the home. Government commitments in 2009 to end the system of male guardianship, outlaw gender discrimination, and give women full citizenship were never honored.

Women's rights activist Manal al-Sharif, initiated the Women2Drive social media campaign in 2011. She was filmed by Wajeha al-Huwaider while driving in the city of Khobar, and the video was published on YouTube. Al-Sharif's imprisonment for nine days led to an international outcry. In the same year, a woman found guilty of driving in Jeddah was sentenced to 10 lashes by a Saudi court.

For many women who want the driving ban lifted, the issue is a push toward wider reforms, supported by an increasing number of men. However, there are underlying religious and political potholes. No religious law prohibits women driving, yet clerics and conservative Saudis argue that lifting the ban would erode modesty and encourage undesirable Westernization. Women might become independent, leave the house without supervision, and give up Islamic dress.

Transport authorities would be faced with logistical problems. Photo identification on a driver's license requires sinful removal of the niqab or face veil. Under strict rules of gender segregation and criminalization of sexual mixing in public, religiously supervised squads of female traffic officers and women-only transportation centers would be required. Traffic officers and religious police would be obliged to stop women drivers in order to determine if any of their passengers were unrelated men, as mixed seating in a car is a punishable crime.

Loosening of sexual segregation and control of women pose fundamental threats to the social order, which is built on a puritanical Wahhabi version of Islam, and the symbiotic Saudi relationship of mosque and state. Undermining this historic bond could throttle the theo/political balance, already strained by the many reforms King Abdullah has embraced. These include women's right to vote and run as candidates in municipal elections from 2015, a major campaign against domestic violence, and the appointment of 30 women to the Shura Council, which advises the monarch on new legislation. Recently, the council rejected recommendations by three female council members to discuss lifting the driving ban.

Under new rules announced earlier this year, women may ride bicycles or buggies in recreational areas if they are dressed in full Islamic attire and are accompanied by male guardians. Moreover, Saudi female film director Haifaa al-Mansour gained royal approval for Wadjda, a somewhat subversive story of a girl who hopes to ride a bicycle.

The Saudi government has dealt with many crises in the past, and successfully defused the Arab Spring uprising by distributing $37 billion in welfare payments. In the case of women would-be drivers, they could try a new welfare package of free chauffeurs. It might just do the trick.