“Why can’t women drive in Saudi Arabia?” an article at CBBC asks in its headline. The reference is not to the age-old sexist complaint that some women are dreadful behind the wheel. Rather, it was to an edict handed down by the Saudi interior ministry this week that said women could be punished if they drive.
The move is the latest assault on women’s rights by the Islamic establishment. The country’s civil code makes no prohibition against females operating motor vehicles.
The law stems from another Islamic proscription, this one against women appearing public without a male guardian. Often, the guardian is a relative and, usually, the woman’s husband, if she is married. The guardian goes everywhere the woman goes, giving her permission to do things like open a bank account.
Some clerics argue that the ban on women driving derives from matters of practicality. The reasoning is that women don’t need to drive, because they are always in the company of a man who can drive for her. Unless of course her chaperone does not himself drive, but what kind of a man is that?
The article cites the view of Saudi women’s rights activist Manal al-Sharif who believes women are banned from driving because it poses a threat to the guardian system and to nonsensical and outdated religious dicta. Al-Sharif made headlines in 2011, when she was featured driving in a YouTube video:
She was arrested, then released, then re-arrested the following day in May of that year. Ultimately, she was set free on bail on condition that she not drive and not talk to the media.
On Saturday, approximately 60 Saudi women followed al-Sharif’s lead and took to the open road in cars and trucks. So far, no arrests have been made.
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