by Donna Abu-Nasr
In Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
When Ruwaida al-Habis’ father and two brothers were badly burned in a fire, she had no choice but to break Saudi Arabia’s ban on women drivers to get them to a clinic.
Using the driving skills her father taught her on the familyfarm, al-Habis managed to reach the clinc’s emergency entrace without a hitch.
“When I pulled up, a crowd of people surrounded the car and stared as if they were seeing extraterrestrial beings,” the 20-year-old university student said. “Instead of focusing on the burn victims, the nurses kept repeating, ‘You drove them here?’.”
Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that bans all women – Saudi and foreign – from driving. The prohibition forces families to hire live-in drivers, and women who cannot afford the US$300-US$400 ($410-$550) a month for a driver must rely on male relatives to drive them to work, school, shopping or the doctor.
But there are signs support for the ban is eroding.
Al-Habis’ story was first published in one of the biggest Saudi newspapers, Al Riyadh which even called her “brave”. Her father, Hamad al-Habis, praised his dauther’s action.
“Why should it even be an issue?” said Hamad al-Habis in his hospital bed. “My daugher took the right decision at the right time.”
Al-Habis is one of several women whose driving has made headlines. It is not clear whether the reports are a sign that more women are driving or that newspapers are just more willing to report about them. But in either case, it suggests the long-unquestioned nature of the ban is crumbling.
That may in aprt be because ofthe signals from the top: King Abdullah, considered a reformist, has said the issue is a social one, not religious, opening the door for society to spur change.
Previously, women who spoke out against the ban paid heavily. In November 1990, when United States troops were in Saudi Arabia following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, some 50 wmen drove family cars in an anti-ban protest. They were jailed for a day, their passports were confiscated and they lost their jobs. The reaction was so harsh that lifting the ban was barely broached again until recently.
Recent media reports have high lighted women driving not as organised protests, but out of necessity or just a desire to be behid the wheel. Five women were breifly detained in separate incidents across the kingdom.
One was a 47-year-old woman detained by the religious police after they received calls from Saudis who had seen her drive repeatedly in the eastern city of Qatif, sasid Muhammad al-Marshoud, a member of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, speaking to Al-Watan newspaper.
Last month, two women died while driving. One, in her 20s, was speeding in a famly car when she hit a power pole in Riyadh. The second, in her 70s, died in a collision with another car in the northern region of the Hail.
Supporters of ending the ban on female drivers point out that the prohibition exists neither in law nor in Islam.
There is no written Saudi law banning women from driving, only fatwas, or edicts by senior clerics that are enforced by police.
No major Islamic clerics outside the country call such a ban.
NZ Herald, 23 August 2008