Driving While Female

Last week Saudi housewife Najla al-Hariri made news by defying the ban on women drivers in Saudi Arabia. She drove around for four days in Jeddah “to defend her belief that Saudi women should be allowed to drive.”

Yesterday I saw reports that a Saudi woman had been arrested for driving. Here’s the odd way CNN put it, though:

A 32-year-old Saudi Arabian who has crusaded for women to drive in her country said she was stopped Saturday for driving a car — even though there is no law against it.

No law against it? Why aren’t women driving if there’s no law against it? Why are they getting arrested or talking about getting arrested if it’s perfectly legal? What does it mean to begin a report on a woman getting arrested in Saudi Arabia for driving by saying there’s no law against driving? What, exactly, do we mean by saying that “there is no law” against female driving in Saudi Arabia?

Manal al Sharif, who says she was arrested, is one of the women behind an organization called Women2Drive. They had an interesting Twitter page last week but all of the tweets have since been deleted. The Facebook group “I will drive starting June 17” has also been deleted. It had some 13,000 fans last week.

Here’s how the CNN piece explains the distinction:

While there are no traffic laws that make it illegal for women to drive in Saudi Arabia, religious edicts are often interpreted as a ban on female drivers.

Um, is this like saying “While there are no fire code laws that make it illegal for girls not wearing full Islamic dress to escape a burning school, religious edicts are often interpreted as a ban on girls doing just that”? I think most people are interested not in whatever the meager fire code or traffic law says but, rather, how the religious edicts are interpreted and why.

Other stories did a better job of explaining the distinction, I think. For instance, here’s a Bloomberg report:

In Saudi Arabia, which enforces the Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam, women aren’t allowed to have a Saudi driver’s permit. They can’t travel or get an education without male approval or mix with unrelated men in public places and aren’t permitted to vote in municipal elections scheduled on Sept. 29.

Al-Sharif and other women are organizing a campaign on Facebook and Twitter urging Saudi women with international driver’s licenses to get into cars starting on June 17. Manal posted a video on Youtube.com of herself driving on May 19 in al-Khobar. More than half a million people have viewed the video.

So women aren’t issued driver’s licenses but if they have them elsewhere, they’re being urged to drive on June 17. No word on whether a foreign driver’s license is valid for these women.

Al-Sharif’s lawyer Adnan Al-Saleh was interviewed for this Arab News piece.

Asked if there were laws against women driving, he said that there were fatwas issued against women driving, but not applied to the legislative authority.

“This is similar to the fatwa that considers smoking prohibited; yet cigarettes are sold in the market and smoked by people.”

I’d still like much more detail here. If Islam doesn’t ban females from driving (and most would say it doesn’t), why are Saudi women having to protest to get the right to drive? I fear too much is assumed by reporters covering the story. I get that there might be complex reasoning coming from the religious police, but it would still be helpful to get even a few details about why women are treated the way they are in Saudi Arabia.

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  • Jon in the Nati

    I wonder why none of these writers felt it was necessary to obtain comment either from the authorities or from Saudi Islamic scholars on either side of the issue. It has been left effectively to those opposing the law (and, in that one case, her lawyer) to talk about the law and its exact parameters.

    It isn’t an issue of fairness; it is just a matter of information, because I read these issues and wanted to know more about the source of these rulings against women driving and why such rulings are legitimate or not. The ulema (Islamic scholars) apparently have a good deal of authority in Saudi culture and government. As such it would be useful to know more about the relationship between these fatwas and the legislative authority of the state.

  • Jerry

    I’d like to read a comparison between how religious authorities enforce their will in Saudi Arabia and how it’s done in Iran. To my mind, there are clear comparisons.

    Even further, I remember not so very long ago how the dictates of the Communist Party were more important than the formal laws. So I suspect there is something fairly universal where the formal organs of government have much less power than religious authority or “secular religious (communist)” authority.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Well, I think the CNN story did note they’d tried to talk to Saudi authorities. Of course, this isn’t news that Saudi Arabia doesn’t allow female driving, so there should be something from the recent past to use, too.

  • sallyr

    It seems to me that if there is a law that makes it impossible for Saudi women to get a drivers license, and a law that requires a drivers license to drive, then there is, in effect, a law against (most) women driving.

    The international drivers license issue is interesting, though and I would have liked to see more information about that.

    As to how to explain the paradox of “no law against it”, I would guess it’s just a matter of everyone taking it for granted that the ban on drivers licenses for women was sufficient for accomplishing the goal of “no women drivers”. So long as everyone assumes something is illegal, there’s really no need for formal legislation. It’s when that consensus gets challenged that the cracks appear.

  • Jon in the Nati

    comparison between how religious authorities enforce their will in Saudi Arabia and how it’s done in Iran. To my mind, there are clear comparisons.

    While I agree that such a comparison would be interesting (I’d like to see it), I’m not certain how helpful it would be given that we would be talking about two different kinds of Islam. Saudi Arabia, of course, is dominated by the Wahabi school of Sunni Islam, while Iran’s religious establishment is Shi’a, and the status of Shi’a clergy and their relation to the government has always been different than in Sunni Islam.

    What I think is interesting is that this takes place against the backdrop some considerable strife within the Saudi scholarly community regarding what role that community should have to the state. In the past, the ulema have been, for all practical purposes, an established organ of the government. The new generation of Islamic scholars in KSA do not approve of such a relationship. In an in-depth story about rulings by the scholarly community which appear to be kinda-sorta enforced by the government, it would seem to behoove a journalist to at explain, in very basic terms and at a very high level, the relationship between that community and the governmental authorities.

  • khadijah

    No driving is not illegal for women in Saudi but they don’t issue licenses to women so really it kind of is.

    It’s the same on Niqab kind of Not required by law, but enforced to different levels by the religious police depending on where one is in the Kingdom. Jeddah being more liberal than Riyadh for instance. But the driving is more enforced. Often the police will do more to uphold the tribal sensabilities than The law and Islam.

    As to how this came about, It was just part of the culture, then In the 90′s the Mufti Ibn Baaz (Rahimahullah) Issued a Fatwa saying women shouldn’t drive for a variety of reasons, from mixing of genders to public safety. However, as is generally understood in the greater muslim community that a fatwa is a ruling pertaining to a specific time and place. And the Sheik made it perfectly clear that this ruling applied only to saudi and other scholars should make ruling based on their own knowledge and location. As it happens the sheiks son has said that he doesn’t feel the fatwa is valid anymore considering that it was given during the gulf war and it was a very unstable time and place and wasn’t safe, and the road system wasn’t and probably still isn’t really safe in any sense at all. That being said i’m certainly glad that these women are standing up to get this ended. As one of the women has said, we can’t all afford a Driver.

  • Dave

    If Islam doesn’t ban females from driving (and most would say it doesn’t), why are Saudi women having to protest to get the right to drive? I fear too much is assumed by reporters covering the story. I get that there might be complex reasoning coming from the religious police, but it would still be helpful to get even a few details about why women are treated the way they are in Saudi Arabia.

    Imagine the difficulty of getting coverage at the time of why Southern African-Americans were treated as they were under Jim Crow laws — especially if the reporter wanted to do something more than just pour more scorn on the white Southern establishment, but write something of lasting interest to people who cared about the historical background of the then-current situation. It would be an advanced-degree thesis undertaking. I think this is something of the same kind of challenge.

  • Delux

    To learn more about women in Saudi Arabia, I suggest this blog http://saudiwoman.wordpress.com; she’s been writing extensively on these issues for years.

  • 5StarTexan

    You know in Saudi Arabia and other Islamic countries laws are written for the men and barely mention women because the women are owned by the men and expected to do whatever the men require. The men control and command their women by the sharia law code under the Quran. It is more of what happens when a woman ventures out to do something that is not accepted under the Quran or by common tradition that stirs up a stink and even gets a woman beheaded. She may just look at a man in the market and happen to have eye contact that brings her a beating. It has nothing to do with what the law officials in Saudi tells reporters but all to do with what happens after a woman has displeased the controlling forces–men who see them as property and baby makers.

  • CompassionateConservative

    Women are NOT allowed to drive anywhere in Saudi Arabia except in US military installations there. I lived in neighboring Bahrain for many years, and women were, and are, allowed to drive there. The same is true at the other GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries like the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. These countries are much more modern and practical in their thinking, and also more accepting of women as having brains and abilities, than is the Saudi kingdom.

    Saudi Arabia needs to progress forward and give women equality, or the country will implode. For decades, Saudi Arabian women drive vehicles when they live or vacation outside of Saudi, and the Saudi men know it because they’re with them. But everyone’s scared to say anything or protest it when they’re within the borders of Saudi. It’s just a matter of time, though, before a collective uprising will force the winds of change, and the change will be dramatic.

    befall this country.
    time before vast changes start happening internally to this country.

  • Roger Williams RI

    In that part of the world, men treat unrelated women like third class citizens.
    If a woman is part of a family, the family treats her like a second class citizen, controls her every move, and does not allow her to have contact with other, unrelated, men because they know that she will be preyed upon. If that happens, tribal honor requires her family to seek revenge.
    In the Middle East, women are attacked, raped, and killed, on a daily basis. We just don’t hear about it. And, if we do, it is always the woman’s fault that a man did harm to her.

  • http://Pick'sPickoftheDay(notthesportsone) S. J. Lyman

    There may be some who may recall during Desert Storm, when we ran Saddam and his troops out of Kuwait, we staged the assault from Saudi Arabia with their blessings, but not totally as you may recall the incident where a Black female soldier driving an American Military Vehicle had two Saudi police step in front of her bringing her to a halt and then attempted to pull her out of the vehicle but she lowered her M-16 on them and they scattered. WOMEN DO NOT DRIVE IN Saudi Arabia!!! They lodged a complaint with our Military and then no more women soldiers drove while in their country…
    So, they can say all they want about it isn’t against the law for women to drive there but the sure made a major deal out of our Female troops driving in their country. Their defense on that subject isn’t as strong as that of their arm pits!!!
    Sharia Law is barbaric, and what’s worse than the law being wielded upon their people, the fact there are localities across the nation and including the State of Minnesota that allows Sharia law to exist which is a direct violation of Federal law!!!