The recent crackdown on undocumented drivers has disrupted the daily lives of many families in Saudi society. Professional women were immobilized and kindergarten schools suffered the most. The brave Saudi women spearheading the women’s driving campaign are motivated by their concern for the safety and welfare of their loved ones, which is why they continue to demand permission to drive. These women refuse to be dissuaded by ignorant fatwas and the narrow-mindedness that continues to dominate the mindset in society. Such narrow mindedness creates an attitude hostile to the concept of women driving in the country.
The struggle between reformers and hardliners continues despite the official ban on extremists’ fatwas. There are still powerful and influential clerics who are blocking the changes that could modernize the existing system and they control and infringe on people’s privacy rights. One example is the fatwa that bans women from driving because it could affect their ovaries or encourage immoral behavior.
Many Saudi families today do not wish to comply with the strict lifestyle of the hardliners, who proclaim modernity to be un-Islamic. Many families want a modern Muslim lifestyle that supports a more flexible attitude that is in tune with the realities of the 21st century.
In 2010, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah banned all fatwas that were not authorized by the Council of Senior Ulema. However, such fatwas continue to be issued by some extremist Ulema causing much public frustration and international criticism. Websites and call-in shows on religious channels continue to promote and interview ultra-conservative Ulema who see themselves as superior to others and are hostile to anyone who does not conform to their views. They use social media to express their condemnation and their rigid interpretations of Islamic Shariah laws. That is why the Saudi women’s driving campaign is not gaining momentum. We need a stronger campaign countering the negative fatwas supporting the ban.
The implications of the ban
Social activists and researchers should address the negative aspects of the continued ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia and expose how it is a source of misery in many Saudi homes, leading at times to divorce, broken homes and juvenile delinquency. There is a dire need to educate the public and spread awareness about how women who drive can contribute to the welfare of the family. It is time to put into action a plan that would honor the role of women and protect the Saudi family from further abuse.
“The government must recognize that today’s professional young men and women are a different generation.”Samar Fatany
Economists stress that the high cost of living and inflation make it difficult for single-income families to provide the basic needs of the average family living in Saudi Arabia today. The participation of women in the workforce is no longer a luxury; it has become an economic necessity. In the absence of public transportation, it is a daily frustration for women to get to work. How and who takes the children to school is also another daily ordeal that middle class families are forced to struggle with. The frustration over the lack of a driver or the expenses of a driver combined with having to deal with his reckless driving, abuse of the vehicle, rude behavior and untrustworthiness are a source of tension in every Saudi household. Lifting the ban on women driving can make life much easier for many families and can contribute to their social and economic welfare.
The media should play a bigger role in highlighting case studies of Saudi families who suffer daily because of the ban. Researchers should conduct studies to address the negative aspects of the ban and prompt government action to resolve the social, psychological and economic injustice inflicted upon the educated middle class. Women should be allowed to drive for the well-being of their families. In other countries, the luxury of a chauffeured car is a privilege that only the rich in society are able to enjoy, but in our case it is a great burden.
Social scientists should address the psychological and economic needs of average middle class families to protect them from stressful conditions and a depressive lifestyle. When the family is faced with daily stress and the frustrations of immobility or its members become prisoners in their own homes, this ultimately leads to many negative consequences, especially unhappy women and children. It is time we implement well-researched strategies that can provide efficient traffic laws and safe roads so that women can drive. The State remains responsible for enforcing the necessary laws that can guarantee the safety of women drivers and ensure the well-being of the average middle class family.
The government must recognize that today’s professional young men and women are a different generation; they are more exposed to the world and have access to a more comfortable and convenient lifestyle across the globe. They continue to express their frustration and discontent in Internet forums and YouTube messages. Calling on the government to allow women to drive and to help them cater to the needs of their families by driving their children to school or their parents to a doctor’s appointment is a legitimate demand that would guarantee the average Saudi family a life of dignity and prosperity on a par with the more advanced societies of the world.
The ban on women driving has a negative effect on the lives of women and their families. It is unacceptable to treat the Saudi family this way in the 21st century. The happiness, safety and welfare of Saudi families could influence the direction of our nation and the future of our younger generation.
This article was first published in the Saudi Gazette on Nov. 16, 2013.
Samar Fatany is a Chief Broadcaster in the English section at Jeddah Broadcasting Station. Over the past 28 years, she has introduced many news, cultural, and religious programs and has conducted several interviews with official delegations and prominent political personalities visiting the kingdom. Fatany has made significant contributions in the fields of public relations and social awareness in Saudi Arabia and has been involved in activities aiming at fighting extremism and enhancing women’s role in serving society. She has published three books: “Saudi Perceptions & Western Misconceptions,” “Saudi Women towards a new era” and “Saudi Challenges & Reforms.”