Though Banned From Driving, Saudi Women Are Now Dealing in Cars

Employees walk among automobiles at the all-women showroom in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Employees walk among automobiles at the all-women showroom in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (By Donna Abu-nasr -- Associated Press)
By Donna Abu-Nasr
Associated Press
Sunday, December 31, 2006

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- Saudi women still can't drive cars, but they can sell them. Potential buyers can go to an all-women showroom where, for the first time, other women will help them choose a car and answer questions about horsepower, carburetors and other automotive features.

Neither the saleswomen nor the female buyers can take a car out for a test drive because women are banned from driving in Saudi Arabia -- even though they have been allowed to own cars for decades and hire male drivers. Almost half the autos belong to women.

The kingdom's strict interpretation of Islam has long limited what women can do outside the home, seeking to keep them from coming into contact with men who aren't relatives.

So sensitive is the issue of women driving that people calling for dialogue on whether Saudi Arabia should remain the only Arab nation that bans female drivers have been largely silenced by a wave of condemnation from conservatives. Mindful of those sensitivities, the Riyadh car dealership that opened the all-women showroom asked that its name not be used.

The seven saleswomen at the spacious showroom insist they aren't pushing for women to drive but only providing comfort for those who want to buy cars and don't like to go to dealerships run by men. With the sexes segregated in schools, restaurants and banks, interaction between salesmen and female customers is awkward for many Saudis.

"I don't support women driving even if a permission is given for them to do so, because the society is not prepared for such a step," said Widad Merdad, one of the saleswomen at the showroom, which is privately owned and -- like many in Saudi Arabia -- offers a range of cars.

While the introduction of car saleswomen into the workforce may seem a gain for Saudi women, some say that for every step forward, women suffer other setbacks.

Saudi writer Maram Mekkawi cited a recent incident in which female doctors attending a conference in the same room as men -- a rare event in the kingdom -- were asked to leave because one speaker refused to address a mixed group. The women left, sparking outrage among other women.

In a column in al-Watan newspaper, Mekkawi said the female doctors wouldn't have been kicked out had Saudi society not programmed them to accept such humiliation.

"I'm sorry to say that I have found in the Western world men and women with much more manly stands than ours here, where we claim a monopoly on values and principles," Mekkawi wrote.

"Would I be blamed if I felt like a third-class or even 10th-class citizen?" she added.

Some people wonder if the new all-women showroom will meet the fate of a similar business forced to close shortly after it opened in Jiddah a few years ago.

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