Thursday 26th April 2001
The Saudi Arabian interior minister, Prince Nayef, stated that his government would not allow women to drive. Women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, although it is tolerated in rural areas (in rural areas women drive “because their families’ survival depends on it” and because the mutaween (close male relative—husband, son or grandson) “can’t effectively patrol” remote areas, according to one Saudi native, although as of 2010 mutaween were clamping down on this freedom. Saudi Arabia has no written ban on women driving, but Saudi law requires citizens to use a locally issued license while in the country. Such licenses are not issued to women, thus making it effectively illegal for women to drive. Furthermore, most Saudi scholars and religious authorities have declared women driving haram (forbidden). Commonly given reasons for the prohibition on women driving include:
Driving a car involves uncovering the face.
Driving a car may lead women to go out of the house more often.
Driving a car may lead women to have interaction with non-mahram males, for example at traffic accidents.
Women driving cars may lead to overcrowding the streets and many young men may be deprived of the opportunity to drive.
Driving would be the first step in an erosion of traditional values, such as gender segregation.
Women are generally discouraged from using public transport. It is technically forbidden, but unenforced, for women to take taxis or hire private drivers, as it results in khalwa (illegal mixing with a non-mahram man).Women have limited access to bus and train services. Where it is allowed, they must use a separate entrance and sit in a back section reserved for women.But the bus companies with the widest coverage in Riyadh and Jeddah do not allow women at all. Critics reject the ban on driving on the grounds that: (1) it is not supported by the Quran, (2) it causes violation of gender segregation customs, by needlessly forcing women to take taxis with male drivers, (3) it is an inordinate financial burden on families, causing the average woman to spend 30% of her income on taxis and (4) it impedes the education and employment of women, both of which tend to require commuting. In addition, male drivers are a frequent source of complaints of sexual harassment, and the public transport system is widely regarded as unreliable and dangerous. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has said that he wants women to drive when the society is ready for it:
“I believe strongly in the rights of women. My mother is a woman. My sister is a woman. My daughter is a woman. My wife is a woman. I believe the day will come when women will drive. In fact if you look at the areas of Saudi Arabia, the desert, and in the rural areas, you will find that women do drive. The issue will require patience. In time I believe that it will be possible. I believe that patience is a virtue.”
On 6 November 1990, about 20 Saudi women illegally drove the streets of Riyadh in protest of the ban on Saudi women drivers. The women were eventually surrounded by curious onlookers and stopped by traffic cops, who took them into custody. They were released after their male guardians signed statements that they would not drive again, but thousands of leaflets with their names and their husbands’ names – with “whores” and “pimps” scrawled next to them – circulated around the city. The women were suspended from jobs, had their passports confiscated, and were told not to speak to the press. About a year after the protest, they returned to work and received their passports, but they were kept under surveillance and passed over for promotions. In 2008, advocates for the right of women to drive in Saudi Arabia collected about 1,000 signatures, hoping to persuade King Abdullah to lift the ban, but they were unsuccessful.