Women Driving a Family Issue, Says Sultan

Somayya Jabarti, Arab News
Publication Date: 
Mon, 2005-12-26 03:00

JEDDAH, 26 December 2005 — Crown Prince Sultan, deputy premier and minister of defense and aviation, yesterday emphasized the government’s readiness to open the way for women driving once they get consent from their families.

“When fathers, husbands and brothers ask us for women to drive we will look into it, but if they ask us the opposite we can’t force them (to let women drive),” the Saudi Press Agency quoted the crown prince as saying. In a previous statement, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah had said that Saudi women would be permitted to drive someday.

“I believe strongly in the rights of women,” the king had said in his first television interview since acceding to the throne on Aug. 1.

“I believe the day will come when women will drive. I believe it will be possible and I believe patience is a virtue,” the king had told Barbara Walters of ABC News. However, he had said he would not impose it against the will of his people by issuing a royal decree.

“This shows that our political leaders are in favor of permitting women to drive, but what is preventing it are society’s perceptions and religious misinterpretations,” said Suhaila Hammad, a member of the National Society for Human Rights. “There is nothing in Islam that states that women shouldn’t drive,” she said and called for a dialogue on the issue.

But many Saudis oppose women driving as they fear that it would bring more chaos and confusion to the already messed up Saudi streets by reckless male drivers.

Retired STC employee and businessman Abdulhadi Al-Qasem, whose wife and daughters are fully educated and employed, said he would be the last person to allow them to drive until the Kingdom’s streets are clear of reckless drivers and callous youth or anyone violating traffic rules. He also called for regulations to protect women drivers.

Tahani Sharbeni, a part-time interviewer at a marketing research company, said she was skeptical that any male guardian would consent to his female ward driving unless it served his own interests. However, she would opt for driving once given the option no matter what the dangers were. She said driving would liberate women from male domination.

Dr. Firas Adel, a Saudi surgeon at a private medical center, said women driving would force authorities to tighten security on streets with better standard of traffic order. “Maybe if men knew that their mothers, wives, daughters or sisters were out there in the streets, they’d be more cautious about how they behave.”

“Women in cars with drivers aren’t spared the harassment of men, I can’t imagine what’s going to happen once the women are on their own in their vehicles. How are they going to feel safe on the streets?” Adel asked.

Rowa Al-Saleh, a graduate medical student, expressed her doubts whether women would be allowed to drive in the Kingdom.

“How many times has the prospect of women driving in Saudi Arabia been dangled before our eyes getting our hopes up with no actual development? Has anything been done toward women driving, such as awareness campaigns for men? Has the traffic department improved the standard of driving on the streets, or have Saudi men been prepared toward such a move? None of this has happened,” she said.

Salam Mohammad, training to be a pilot, said that women’s driving is no longer optional but compulsory. “Financially recruiting and employing a driver is costly and my mind would be more at rest knowing that the wheels are in my wife’s hands instead of some stranger who is not a professional driver. And one day when I have daughters I’d rather they are completely independent women than be at the mercy of some man who might abuse his guardianship over them,” he said.

In his wide-ranging press conference, Prince Sultan also denied reports about a minor Cabinet reshuffle after Haj, changing of regional governors and increasing the number of the Kingdom’s regions. He said the privatization process of Saudi Arabian Airlines was progressing well. He welcomed private airlines to operate domestic flights.

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