A Saudi woman friend who needed corrective eye surgery visited a doctor in her country a few years ago to see if she qualified for the procedure. As he performed routine tests my friend reminded him that he hadn’t measured the diameter of her pupils. She’d done her homework and knew what to expect. The doctor told her it was an unnecessary test for women because it measured the clarity of night vision which was crucial for driving in the dark and since women can’t drive in the kingdom, he performed the test on men only.
My friend was particularly outraged because in 1990, when 47 Saudi women infamously violated the ban on driving by taking to the wheel in a convoy through the capital Riyadh, she was one of just a few students in her high school who refused to sign a petition by teachers and classmates denouncing the protestors.
Some 17 years later, the newly-formed Committee of Demanders of Women's Right to Drive Cars sent an altogether different petition of more than 1,100 names to Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah on September 23, their country’s national day. It was not only the first public challenge to the driving ban since the 1990 demonstration but a well-timed reminder that as Saudi Arabia turns 77, it remains the only country in the world to prohibit women from such a basic right -- quite an irony for the country that keeps so many of the world’s cars running thanks to its massive oil reserves.
Saudi Arabia might be richer and enjoy more political clout than ever -- since Abdel Aziz Al-Saud brought together its disparate regions under the monarchy named after his family -- but it continues to hold one of the poorest women’s rights records in the world.
When my family moved from the UK to Saudi Arabia in 1982, my mother -- a physician who like my father had just earned her Ph.D. from a British university -- said she felt she had been rendered a cripple by her inability to drive. On the few occasions we rode the public buses, we got a taste of what can only be described as gender apartheid -- women had just two rows at the very back.
While wealthier women who can afford to hire drivers can circumvent the driving ban’s restriction on their mobility, no amount of money shields them from the requirement that women produce a male guardian’s permission to do the most basic things, including traveling and receiving medical care.
The personal costs of speaking out have always been high. The women who staged the first public challenge to the driving ban were denounced as whores in mosque sermons, were banned from working for two years and had their passports temporarily confiscated.
Although the latest petition is unlikely to put women behind the wheel and on their country’s multi-lane highways anytime soon, the use of the internet -- emails, blogs, and social networking websites -- to circulate it showed how adept Saudi women have become at navigating the information highway, which has become one of the most exciting tools for change in the Arab world.
There is nothing in Islam that prohibits women from driving. Clerics from Saudi Arabia’s ultra-conservative Wahhabi school of thought, which preaches a strict segregation of the sexes, justify the ban by saying it prevents women from mixing with unrelated men.
Put in the context of a country breathlessly modernizing ever since oil was first discovered, the ban -- like the black headscarf and cloak women must wear in public -- is a reminder of how Saudi Arabia is a country playing out its identity crises over the bodies of women.
The petition though was a reminder that a new generation of Saudi women -- the most educated since their country first opened girls’ schools in 1955 -- was becoming increasingly vocal in demanding rights. A Saudi researcher who has studied the use of petitions since the early 1990s, told me the driving petition was an important milestone in Saudi women's involvement in the reform movement, because it was the first to be organized solely by women for women.
Women comprise more than 55 percent of students in Saudi Arabian universities and are becoming more adept at bending their country’s tight social mores. In doing so, they challenge assertions by ultra-conservative clerics that any call for women’s rights is a “western idea” and they belie the accusations of some in the West that Saudi women are doing nothing to change their lot.
“I know women who maintain a very low profile but are effective and are changing commerce and civil laws using Saudi women lawyers and consultants,” a Saudi friend said. “They are opening factories and training centers for women addressing women’s employment laws; they are opening shelters and centers for poor women, changing how the government treats the poor and disabled. These women are heard here and they cause change. They inspire.”
Such women are also natural allies of King Abdullah, considered by many Saudis to be an honest and fair man who wants to reform. He has already presided over the first municipal elections in Saudi Arabia -- though the ultra-conservative clerics ensured the 2005 polls were limited to men. The king can most help women by getting those clerics out of their way so that nothing is limited to men only, whether it’s voting rights, driving or simple eye tests.
Mona Eltahawy is an award-winning New York-based journalist and commentator and an international lecturer on Arab and Muslim issues.
Copyright ©2007 Mona Eltahawy