Women Gear Up For Driving Rights

RIYADH, 9 November 2004 — A broad-based coalition of prominent Saudi women has renewed the call for removing the ban on driving, urging government agencies to review the issue on priority basis.

The women are hopeful that the reform process initiated by the Saudi government in different sectors also will cover the subject of driving, and this reform process, while touching the sensitive issue, will eventually change Saudi society’s attitude to women behind the wheel.

The call by women has been made despite a few bizarre accidents of late involving women drivers.

In one instance last week, a Saudi was killed in a car accident involving a woman driver. The accident occurred when the unidentified woman’s car collided with a man’s truck in a desert area in Najran, some 1,000 kilometers southwest of Riyadh, an eyewitness said here Sunday.

“The accident was fatal,” said truck driver Kalamuddin Raki. “The man died, and the woman driver was seriously injured.”

It was not immediately known how the traffic police are handling the woman driver’s case. However, she’s believed to be an offender on two counts — first, that she drove without a license defying the ban on women driving and second, that she had an accident in which a person was killed. The police in Najran region are lodging charges.

“It is a common sight to see Saudi women driving in desert areas, school grounds and residential compounds — at least for fun,” Raki pointed out. His friends agreed.

That is not always the case. Saba Abu Lisan of Riyadh set an unusual example for other ladies when she saved lives by driving seven wounded out of Al-Muhayya Compound following a suicide bombing in November last year.

Had it not been for the Saudi woman’s driving skills, many of those injured would not have survived.

“Women in Saudi Arabia should and must drive,” said Dr. Amira Kashgary, a professor of linguistics at the College of Education at King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah. The ban has “economic and social implications for working women. It is now a necessity to drive and lifting the so-called ban on driving does not mean that all women will jump on the roads, let the authorities be selective in terms of giving permission. More than 70 percent of Saudi women drive themselves when they go abroad.”

“Priorities are changing for women of this country,” said Noura Al-Sowaiyan, vice president of a local charity. “We are demanding many other rights, and we are hopeful that the right to drive will also be given to women. It is a right that I will continue to demand.”

“I wish the government study the issue on priority basis and allow women to occupy the driver’s seat,” said psychotherapist Madeeha Al-Ajroush. “The ball is in the government’s court.”

She lauded the reform initiatives of the government, which is now issuing separate identity cards for women.

“Driving for women in this country is not a luxury rather it is a necessity,” said Dr. Hatoon Al-Fassi, assistant professor of history at King Saud University.

Almost all women contacted by Arab News, however, urged the government to review the issue on a priority basis. They said that a number of Saudi girls studying abroad drive themselves to their universities, while here in Saudi Arabia, families are compelled to hire foreign drivers to take female family members from one place to another.

Although, the Ministry of Interior has reiterated that the permission for the women to drive is “out of question for the time being,” the issue is being widely debated in the local press.

Senior religious scholars have expressed their opinions. They have also issued fatwas on the issue with some saying that it is sinful for women to drive and that such acts would open doors to corruption and destruction of family values.

“Even if the government allows women to drive, not all women will suddenly come to roam the streets,” said Laura Collins, a business consultant. “Let there be a choice to drive, and let the family of a woman decide whether or not to allow a particular woman member to hold the steering wheel.”

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