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?'"

 

UN Security Council lenient to Turkey’s Syria offensive

Washington probes Hezbollah ‘narcoterrorism’

Tillerson to present US strategy on Syria to European, Arab allies

Russia pension funds may invest in Aramco IPO

Iranian woman skydiver looks to break down stereotypes

Qaeda leader calls on Muslims to attack Jews, Americans over Jerusalem

Palestinians in occupied West Bank get 3G

Turkish army clashes with Kurdish militia amid US alarm

Turkey arrests dozens accused of ‘terror propaganda’

Three French female jihadists face possible death penalty in Iraq

Women journalists protest separation during Pence visit to Jerusalem

Egypt military accuses presidential hopeful of committing crimes

Israeli minister calls to ban author praising Palestinian teen

Qatar supports Turkey’s offensive against Kurds

World powers meet on Syria chemical attacks

Morocco's king appoints five new ministers

Pence pledges US embassy move by end of 2019 on Jerusalem trip

Russia calls for diplomatic solution to Yemen conflict

Russia invites Kurds to join Syria peace process

Turkey shells Kurdish targets in northern Syria

Closer look at pro-Ankara rebels amassing around Afrin

Pence set for Palestinian snub

Abbas to ask EU to recognise Palestinian state

Saudi-led coalition to give $1.5 bln in Yemen aid

Mattis: Turkey gave US advance warning on Syria operation

Yemen releases budget for first time in three years

Saudi calls for cooperation between OPEC, non-OPEC countries

France presses Turkey to end offensive against Kurds

The changing faces of al-Qaeda in Syria

Kurdish militia fire rockets at Turkish town

Moroccans wary depreciation of dirham could raise cost of living, despite benefits

Deserted streets, terrified civilians after Turkey attacks Afrin

Iraqi, Kurdish leaders hold talks on bitter regional dispute

Russia-led Syria peace congress to be held January 30

Turkey launches new strikes on Kurdish targets in Syria

Egypt's Sisi says will stand for re-election

Pence heads to Mideast despite Muslim, Christian anger

Assad regime says Syria a 'tourist' destination

Journalists arrested while reporting Sudan protests

Aid for millions of Palestinians hostage to politics

Lebanon thwarts holiday attacks using IS informant

Mortar fire wounds 14 in Syria mental hospital

Turkish military fires on Kurdish forces in Syria's Afrin

More than 32,000 Yemenis displaced in intensified fighting

UN warns of "lost generation" in South Sudan's grinding conflict