As an ‘Arab spring’ sweeps through West Asia, one country has managed to remain insulated from the unrest. Early on, the Saudi monarch, King Abdullah, bought peace with a hefty $137 billion largesse for his subjects in unemployment, housing, and other benefits. It included a $200 million package for the religious establishment that had obligingly decreed that street protests were forbidden in Islam.
The move paid off. Still, a slight whiff of jasmine over the kingdom was unmistakable when a handful of Saudi women took the wheels of their cars on June 17 in protest against an official ban on women driving. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world with such a ban. Driving was prohibited after a similar protest in 1990 by a group of women who decided it was time to challenge the unofficial ban that had existed until then. The prohibition was based on the dubious ground that it led to ikhtilat or ‘gender mixing,’ ruled by Saudi clerics as not permitted in Islam. Paradoxically, women can own cars.
In some rural areas, and inside compounds such as a university or an office layout, they drive them too. But the ban is strictly followed in most places, with women dependent on men to chauffeur them around. Manal al-Sharif was doubtless emboldened by the democracy movements in the neighbourhood when she used social media networks to launch Women2Drive, a campaign urging Saudi women to break the ban, starting from the third Friday of June. The call evidently rattled the Saudi government, as seen from its swift moves to snuff out the campaign by arresting the 32-year-old Aramco engineer for over a week and taking her pages off the Internet. But the idea had already found resonance.
Mobility empowers women, and Saudi women see driving as the first step to win more freedoms from a brazenly anti-women regime. But Saudi women want to drive for some practical reasons also: it makes more economic sense than employing a driver and allows better time management. Many even argue it means less ‘gender-mixing,’ as it reduces dependence on non-family male drivers.
That the Saudi authorities decided, after the initial reaction, not to use a heavy hand against the women who participated in the protest is a sign of its caution in the present regional environment. Two decades ago, it sacked the protesting women from their jobs, and penalised their male relatives. The regime’s maximum response this time — a traffic ticket to one woman for driving without a Saudi licence — may mean one of two things: hope that ignoring the protest will make it go away; or a possibility of relaxation of the ban in the belief that such limited ‘reform’ will act as a safety valve, keeping the lid on demands for more far-reaching political reform.
Either way, it is a small step forward for women. ( Hindu)