Saudi women start driving for the front seat
Saudi Arabia's first driving protest brought around 40 women out on the roads of the capital, Riyadh and a smaller sprinkling in Mecca, Jedda and al Khobar – not too impressive when compared with the raging masses of their Arab neighbors. But this small step in response to calls on the social networks to take to the roads Friday, June 17, was a big step for Saudi womankind. One violator of Saudi Arabia's ban on women drivers feared the worst when a police patrol stopped her. But she was only issued her a ticket for not having a Saudi driving license – and off she drove.
Her husband, in the back seat for the first time, was reprimanded and one hardline conservative imam, Sheikh Abdulrahman Al Barrak denounced women drivers as "the keys of evil" in the country and, perish the thought, "Westernized."
Only last month, Manal al-Sharif was jailed for a week in the Eastern Province town of Al-Khobar for posting a video of herself on YouTube at the wheel in a black abaya. She was released after she promised not to take part in the June 17 protest.
The Women2Drive organizers were cautious: Violate the 1990 bylaw banning women drivers? Definitely. But don't gather in one place so as not to violate the ban on demonstrations. This addressed some fears that the campaign would ignite general protest in the country.
The royal rulers have so far stayed clear of the mass Days of Rage and uprisings bedeviling other Arab regimes. They pacified and rewarded their subjects with hefty salary rises, new public housing and other perks.
King Abdullah and the more progressive parts of the royal family acknowledge that the ban on women driving is not religious and may eventually agree to ending the prohibition which keeps Saudi women grounded unless a family member or hired male chauffeur drives them, for instance, to pick up children from school.
Saudi Arabia's heavily male-dominated society is the real issue. Women2Drive, therefore, touches a very hot potato in the hidebound kingdom by saying in effect that it is time women took charge of their own lives and won a place at the wheel of public life too.
Indirect hints and nudges indicated a slight melting in high-placed resistance.
This month, the Shoura Council, the kingdom's closest approach to a parliament, said it could address the issue "if asked to do so." This was a message to the throne which dictates the council's agenda that it was open to discussing reform. But the princes are so far divided on the issue – at least until the movement gathers momentum.
So far, the campaign's petition posted on Facebook in February has fallen well short of the 50,000-target for openly defying the conservative authorities.
Following the detention of Manal al-Sharif in late May, six women were caught driving cars in Riyadh two weeks later – apparently ordered to test the water ahead of June 17. They too were arrested.
The debate for and against has grabbed headlines in Saudi Arabia and the Arab world. The most notorious champion of women's rights is Prince Waleed bin Talal; the most influential is Princess Reem al-Faysal, a photographer and the granddaughter of King Faysal, who wrote this week that "it is truly tragic that… we are treated as eternal minors." She suggested that even if women drove camels, they would have to content themselves with the back seat.
She is reportedly backed by the king's daughters and even some religious figures. A year ago, Ahmad Bin Baz, an Islamic scholar the son of the late Grand Mufti, Bin Baz, published an article, arguing that conditions had changed since the 1990 ban and women should be allowed to drive cars. He said this was a matter concerning their rights rather than religion.
However, powerful forces oppose this view. One is Interior Minister Prince Naif, who is third in line to the throne, and supported by many prominent Saudi clerics and conservatives.
Abdullah, from the time he was crown prince, has introduced small steps to advance women, such as giving them separate ID instead of being registered on the documents of fathers or husbands, and government appoints, including deputy education minister, diplomatic posts, deputy editor of the Arab News and places on the boards of hospital departments.
In a move to head off protest in the kingdom, the king created 70,000 jobs for women in the government.
But the clergy's resistance to "gender mixing" in places of employment remains strong and women will not vote or be elected in the municipal elections in September.