Saudi Arabian women want to drive. They can’t. Not because it is illegal but because they cannot get licenses. The authorities say the driving issue is not a legal one, but a societal one. In May, one woman was detained for 10 days after uploading a video of herself driving in Riyadh but another woman who drove on June 18 was given a ticket for driving.
I think we all want answers, if only to clear up the confusion.
Manal Al Sharif, the Saudi who became a champion crusader for women’s rights when she was arrested and detained for 10 days for driving, was charged with, amongst other things, swaying public opinion against the regulations.
This despite assurances from officials on the issue of women driving in which they’ve said the issue is a societal one. King Abdullah himself said this in an interview to American television six years ago and more recently the same was said by Prince Naif.
So it is confusing when the Interior Minister, Prince Ahmed Bin Abdul Aziz says that his ministry is only following orders issued in 1990 which says that women cannot drive. He said: “Our mission is to implement the system, but whether this action is right or wrong is not for us to say.”
So were the near 50 women who drove on June 17 in Saudi Arabia in violation of the law or not? The “rule” is a societal one but women are detained for driving because of their gender—though a lot of women were ignored by police as they drove in cities save Maha Al Qahtani who was issued a ticket for driving without a Saudi license.
The “women2drive” campaign on Twitter has gained international momentum with US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi tweeting her support for June 17’s campaign. To attempt to break that momentum will prove futile but so will authorities’ denial of the issue.
More women will are likely to shift gears (no pun intended) and up the ante on the government to issue them driving licenses. The government cannot adopt a strategy in which it hopes the same elements opposed to the idea of women driving will just change their minds once they see women drivers on the road.
Something needs to be done.
Perhaps Saudi authorities can use its position of being a signatory to international convention like Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women as a starting point. By denying women the right to drive (in essence freedom of independent movement) it is in violation of CEDAW—which it will want to rectify. And it can do so by clearing its position, once and for all, on whether it is legal for women to drive.
Because the women are all geared up and ready to rev their engines.
(Muna Khan, Editor of Al Arabiya English, can be reached at email@example.com. This blog represents her personal views, and not that of Al Arabiya)