Saudi Women See a Brighter Road on Rights
Group Says King May Lift Driving Ban by Year's End

By Faiza Saleh Ambah
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 31, 2008

JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia, Jan. 30 -- Buoyed by recent advances in women's rights, advocates for the right of women to drive in Saudi Arabia -- the only country in the world that prohibits female drivers -- say they believe the ban will be lifted this year.

The women's group has collected more than 3,000 signatures in the past five months and hopes that King Abdullah will issue a royal decree giving women the right to drive.

Since taking the throne in 2005, Abdullah has championed women's right to work and often takes official trips overseas with delegations of female journalists and academics. The king has said that he does not oppose allowing women to drive but that society needs to accept the idea first.

"I think the authorities want people to get used to the idea and will lift the ban before the end of the year," said Wajeha al-Huwaider, 45, an educational analyst and co-founder of the group.

The group, which sent the king petitions in September and December asking him to lift the ban, is working on a third. "Every time we gather 1,000 signatures, we will send them," Huwaider said.

She and co-founder Fouzia al-Ayouni said they were encouraged by the recent easing of certain strictures on women and statements from senior officials saying the driving ban is more social than religious or political.

In November, the foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, told Britain's Channel 4 news that there was no Saudi law prohibiting women from driving.

"Myself, I think they should drive," he said, but added: "For us, it is not a political issue, it is a social issue. We believe that this is something for the families to decide, for the people to decide, and not to be forced by the government, either to drive or not to drive."

Saudi Arabia follows a strict form of Islamic law that does not allow women self-guardianship, mandating a male guardian for women of all ages. A woman cannot travel, appear in court, marry or work without permission from a male guardian, sometimes her own son.

Until recently, women were also barred from checking into hotels and renting apartments unless they were with a male guardian. But a royal decree announced this month now allows women to stay in hotels and furnished apartments unaccompanied.

The newspaper Al-Watan reported last week that a circular has been issued to hotels asking them to accept women who show identification. The hotel is then required to register the women's details with the police.

But in this deeply religious and patriarchal society, many believe that allowing women the right to drive could lead to Western-style openness and an erosion of traditional values.

Many women complain that driving is a necessity and argue that not everyone can afford to hire foreign drivers, whose salaries range from $300 to $600 a month, plus room and board. Live-in chauffeurs, often from the Philippines or the Indian subcontinent, are considered unlikely to develop relationships with the women.

Several times a week, Haifa Osra, 31, one of the first members of the group, walks 10 minutes from her apartment to an Internet cafe to sort through the details of the women who have signed the latest petition.

This week, she approached four women at the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf and asked them to add their names.

Haifa Khashoggi, 48, a homemaker, agreed that women should be allowed to drive, "but with conditions."

The other women concurred, saying that initially only women older than a certain age should drive, and not at all hours.

"It's safer and more Islamic for me to drive myself than to sit with an unrelated male driver," said Nadia Nusair, 45, a consultant on educational and family issues.

"It will be chaos at first," said Ibtisam al-Sharif, 47. "But pretty soon, driving will be accepted and everyone will find it normal."

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