The Inside Story Of Saudi Arabia's Bizarre Ban On Female Drivers

One of the most infamous and well known examples of the Saudi Arabian government's misogyny and religious fundamentalism is the countrywide ban on female drivers. Support for the ban remains strong among more hardline aspects of Saudi society. In recent years, however, Saudi Arabian citizens have witnessed incremental improvements in women’s rights, and now is the time for activists to take advantage of this momentum and fight the ban on driving. Even if they do not succeed in securing the right in the short-term, their efforts will contribute to the progress of the Saudi women’s rights movement.

The October 26 Movement calls on Saudi women to take to the streets and drive on October 26 in protest of the ban. The campaign also initiated a petition asking the government to “provide appropriate means for women seeking the issuance of permits and licenses to obtain them.” If the government refuses to lift the ban and provide a valid legal justification, the activists call upon the state to establish a legal mechanism for citizens to express their wishes. It’s the latest installment in a long-fought battle for greater rights.

In response to this new campaign, a hardline Saudi cleric’s ludicrous statements defending the ban have captured Western headlines. Sheikh Saleh bin Saad al-Lohaidan claimed, “Physiological medical studies show that it automatically affects the ovaries and pushes the pelvis upwards… That is why we find those who regularly drive have children with clinical problems of varying degrees.” Using pseudo-science to oppress women isn’t confined to Saudi Arabia. Let’s not forget Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” comments.

This year, Saudi Arabia witnessed some improvements in women’s rights including permitting sports programs at private girls’ schools and allowing females to ride bicycles and buggies in the presence of a male guardian. A law criminalizing domestic violence against women, children, and domestic workers was also established. In January, King Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz issued a decree granting women 30 seats to be filled by royal appointment on the Shura Council, an advisory body. Moreover, women will be allowed to vote and run for office in municipal elections in 2015. Nevertheless, Saudi women continue to face numerous inequalities and restrictions, among the worst in the world, but these developments are signs that the monarchy is somewhat open to reform, albeit at an incredibly slow pace.

The ban on female drivers originated with a fatwa, a formal legal opinion, and is not encoded in law. In 1991, the nation’s Grand Mufti Abd al-Aziz bin Baz argued that a woman driving “entails unlawful khalwa (being alone with a member of the opposite sex), unveiling the face, careless and free intermixing (of men and women), and committing adultery, which is the main reason for the prohibition of these practices.” In line with this legal opinion, the kingdom does not issue driving licenses to women, resulting in a de-facto ban. Female Saudi activists have protested this restriction ever since.

While the ban is intended to prevent the mixing of men and women, Saudi women often must rely on drivers to travel locally, which are typically immigrant workers and not relatives. This is also a burden on families not able to afford a chauffeur. Selma Sharif, a Saudi citizen, expressed her exasperation: “Who can I trust to take my kids to school when my husband can’t take them? The solution is to lift the ban and start from somewhere.” In some rural areas the ban is ignored, and women drive regularly.

A number of Saudi officials have recently questioned the need to deprive women of the right to drive. The chief of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice said that the ban “is not mandated by any text in Shari’a, the Islamic code which forms the basis for most Saudi law.” Former Shura Council member Mohammed al-Zulfa considers driving a basic right and argues, “There are rights the government should give like education, health care, and the ability to move and use transportation freely.” While conservative resistance to such reforms remains strong, the tide appears to be slowly turning in its favor.