Women driven to confusion in Saudi Arabia

On 11 March, when Saudi protesters' "day of rage" did not materialise, Fouad al-Farhan, a human rights activist, tweeted:

"My fear is that the ceiling of our reformist demands will be lowered to women driving for some and combating westernisation for others."

Two months later, his fears became a reality. A campaign to allow women to drive in Saudi Arabia was started on Facebook. Currently this issue has overtaken all others online, in the press and on the ground.

The movement particularly caught fire when a face for it emerged. A Saudi woman, Manal al-Sharif, came forward and posted a Youtube video advising how to go about the campaign. The plan was that starting from 17 June, Saudi women with international driving licences would begin driving their own cars rather than letting a male driver do it for them.

So far approximately 45 women have driven cars all across the kingdom in connection with the campaign and many of them have posted videos of their excursions online.

That there are women in Saudi who are distressed at the ban on their driving is well known. On the other hand the religious establishment has also been staunch in its demand to maintain the ban. Some of them have even gone so far as to call the campaign western-backed "female terrorism" and "soft terrorism". Others claimed that the campaign to allow women to drive is an Iranian/Shia conspiracy to destabilise the country.

So we know where Saudi people stand regarding women driving, depending on the degree of their loyalty to the religious establishment. The only position that is not clear is the government's.

When Manal al-Sharif drove she was arrested and imprisoned for 10 days. She was charged with bypassing rules and regulations, driving a car within the city, enabling a journalist to interview her while driving a car, deliberately disseminating the incident to the media, incitement of Saudi women to drive cars, and turning public opinion against the regulations.

At the same time we have Saudi officials making statements to both local and foreign press that this is not a legal issue but a societal one. King Abdullah said in an interview with Barbara Walters in 2005 that women driving is a social issue and the same statement was made by Prince Naif (second in line to the throne) to local press. Then after Manal's arrest, the deputy interior minister, Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, issued a statement:

"Any claims may be received from any party, regardless of them being right or wrong ... but women driving cars in Saudi Arabia has already been decided on in 1990 to not allow women driving. This, for us, the ministry of the interior, continues to stand ... Our mission is to implement the system, but whether this action is right or wrong is not for us to say."

This has many Saudis confused: is it legal for women to drive or not? If not, then doesn't that go against Saudi Arabia being a signatory to Cedaw, the international Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women? Why do officials make these statements about it being a ban imposed by society and then have police detain women for driving while being female?

So far, the government has been silent. On Friday, several of the women who drove their cars in Saudi cities were ignored by the police. And in one case a woman, Maha al-Qahtani, was stopped in Riyadh and issued with a ticket for not having a Saudi licence, even though she holds two licences from other countries and in Saudi Arabia licences are not issued to women.

Then, after all of the video evidence and witnesses, Saudi traffic officials and local press claimed that there were no women driving. Despite more than 45 reported cases, including the one with a traffic ticket, the official stance seems to be denial.

I wonder what will happen as the women's driving campaign continues and more Saudi women get behind the wheel. Will the government ignore us until we become a common sight and society gets accustomed to the idea? Will there be a crackdown, with the women who drove arrested and imprisoned? Will the government implement a system that gradually allows women on Saudi roads?

Your guess is as good as mine. All I know as a Saudi woman is that the current situation of gender discrimination against who can and cannot drive their own cars is unsustainable economically, socially and legally.

Eman Al Nafjan, the author of the Saudiwoman's Weblog, a blog on Saudi society, culture, women and human rights issues. She is based in the Saudi capital, Riyadh.

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