First Published: 2017-10-04

'I make the decisions': Saudi men react to women driving
Ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia must tackle entrenched male attitudes towards women drivers before millions take the wheel for first time.
Middle East Online

Saudi women waiting for their drivers outside a hotel in the Saudi capital Riyadh.

RIYADH - With many carrots and some sticks, ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia seeks to tackle entrenched male attitudes towards women drivers before millions take the wheel, many for the first time, next June.

For decades, hardliners cited austere Islamic interpretations to justify the ban on women, with some maintaining that they lacked the intelligence to drive and allowing them to do so would promote promiscuity.

The ban finally ended last week, but many women fear they are still easy prey for conservatives in a nation where male "guardians" have arbitrary authority to take decisions on their behalf.

"You can revoke the ban, but you cannot force men to allow their sisters and wives to drive," said a Saudi man with a private taxi company in Riyadh, declining to be named.

"As head of my family, I make the decisions -- not the women," he said, expressing an aversion to his wife driving as that would mean more contact with unrelated men.

Such views are hardly an anomaly in the gender-segregated kingdom, despite Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's stunning reform push that has sought to liberalise the kingdom and add more women to the workforce.

"Expect more accidents" because of women drivers, remarked one Saudi, echoing an avalanche of sexist comments on Twitter.

Saudi authorities last week arrested a man who threatened a violent backlash against any female driver whose car breaks down.

"I swear to God, I will burn her and her car," the man, wearing a traditional white robe, said in an online video.

- 'Modern-day camels' -

Such attitudes have prompted fears among some women that they will struggle to get licences or could be deliberately failed in driving tests.

The government has preemptively addressed such concerns, with the interior ministry pledging to enforce the law by any means necessary.

Riyadh is already moving to bring female driving instructors from abroad and establish driving schools exclusively for women.

Authorities are also moving to criminalise sexual harassment with a new law, with flogging and jail terms as possible penalties.

The Saudi media is also taking on conservative opposition -- with a dash of humour.

"Driving has always been a minefield in the battle of the sexes... Sorry fellas but women are the better drivers," declared a recent graphic published in the English-language daily Arab News, citing research that male drivers are involved in more accidents.

Newspaper editorials have argued that if women were allowed to ride camels in the time of the Prophet Mohammed then they should be allowed to drive "modern-day camels" -- cars.

Others have highlighted the economic benefits of the reform; Saudi families would no longer need foreign chauffeurs, often a major source of financial strain.

Sabq online newspaper published a cartoon comparing the merits of two drivers: a scraggily dressed foreign man and a veiled Saudi woman.

"Man: Salary. Housing. Bad Tempered. Knows your deepest secrets. Ruins your car," it said.

"Woman: Love. Care. Consideration. Commitment."

- 'Village mentality' -

But authorities are careful not to antagonise the sensitivities of hardline clerics.

The Council of Senior Scholars, the kingdom's highest religious body that is close to the royal family, announced the majority of its members found that lifting the ban was "permissible".

Experts say their approval -- after decades of opposition -- symbolises the government's tightening grip on the religious establishment that has long dominated Saudi politics.

"It's unlikely that the scholars who consistently maintained that driving would damage ovaries, deprive (women) of their virginity and integrity had a sudden epiphany that their decades-old beliefs were wrong," said James Dorsey from Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

When the ban was lifted, several women's rights activists who long fought it alleged that authorities warned them not to make any public comments -- seemingly not to highlight that activism can lead to reform.

The government denies the claim.

Ali Shihabi, from the Washington-based think tank Arab Foundation, said on Twitter that the government did not want activists to "further provoke the conservatives who were already provoked by (the) driving decision".

The decision was led by Prince Mohammed, who styles himself as a reformer who will set the country on the road to modernity and civil liberty.

But some experts have called the decision pure tokenism until the kingdom dismantles its rigid guardianship system.

"Women still face a number of other hurdles," said research firm Capital Economics.

"It may take many years for Saudi society to fully accept a greater role for women."

A Saudi executive at a multinational company in Riyadh said the main obstacle remains a prevailing "village mentality", although some patriarchs prefer having women drive themselves than be chauffeured around by unrelated men.

"Women drivers will become a new normal and then people will say: 'How come we didn't allow this to happen sooner?'"

 

Iraq dismisses US call for Iranian-backed militias to 'go home'

Opposition calls on Iraqi Kurd leader to step down

IS ‘executed’ 116 suspected of Syria regime collaboration

Israel arrests 51 Palestinians for ‘terror-related’ crimes

Greening the Camps brings food and hope to refugees

UNICEF says 1,100 children malnourished in Syria’s Ghouta

UN says Yemen children in desperate need of aid

Orthodox Jews block Jerusalem entrance in protest

Six terror suspects arrested in Morocco

EU announces 106 million euros in aid for Sudan

French judges to rule on whether 'Jihad' is acceptable name

Saudi Aramco chief confirms IPO despite doubts

Lack of accountability hinders governing in Morocco, analysts say

Sudan editor convicted after Bashirs accused of graft

Russia’s Lavrov urges Iraq-Kurd dialogue

Kurds to arrest 11 Iraqis in response to similar Baghdad move

Car bomb attack kills 9 in south Yemen military base

Rouhani boasts about Iran’s greatness in region

Iraq unrest highlights long-standing political divisions

Bahrain temporarily frees female activist

Egypt court sentences 11 people to death for 'terrorism'

Israel police arrest 15 over anti Jewish-Arab dating campaign

Tillerson woos Gulf allies to curb Iran influence

Abadi, Sadr meet in Jordan

No clear US strategy in Syria after Raqqa liberation

Tillerson pushes to undercut Iran at landmark Saudi, Iraq meeting

Gulf share values plummet

US-backed forces capture key Syria oil field

More than half of Austrians vote for anti-immigration party

Washington sees potential Hezbollah threat in the US

UN ends Libya talks with no progress made

Cairo killing sparks security concerns among Copts

Iraq PM arrives in Saudi to upgrade ties

35 Egyptian police killed in Islamist ambush

Morocco recalls Algeria envoy over 'hashish money' jibe

Ceremony marks 75 years since WWII Battle of El Alamein

Somalia attack death toll rises to 358

Long road ahead for families of jailed Morocco protesters

How Raqa recapture affects complex Syrian war

Israel hits Syrian artillery after Golan fire

Germany advances Israel submarine deal after corruption holdup

Bashir Gemayel's killer convicted, 35 years later

SDF hails 'historic victory' against IS in Raqa

Hamas delegation visits Iran

Turkish court orders release of teacher on hunger strike