The world over, a driver's license and access to a car are considered an important, even vital, personal freedom. It would not be surprising if some American teenagers believed it was enshrined somewhere in the Constitution. All the world over, that is, except Saudi Arabia, the only nation that bans women from driving.
But change is coming, if slowly. Last Friday, women were urged to drive when doing their routine errands and many did, often with their husbands beside them.
The last demonstration was 20 years ago, and the 47 women who participated were labeled infidel whores, had their passports confiscated and, if they worked for the government, were fired by royal decree.
This time when the police acted, and many of them did not, the women were given tickets for driving without a license or escorted home and admonished not to drive again. However, many well-to-do women were technically driving legally because they had valid foreign licenses.
But this is the era of social media and videos of the women driving made it to YouTube and various Facebook pages. In fact, there is a special Saudi Facebook page, Women2Drive, and a website, saudiwomendriving.blogspot.com.
The organizer of the demonstration, Manal al-Sharif, was jailed last month for nine days as a cautionary warning, but nine days is a relative inconvenience compared to what the earlier batch of women drivers went through.
There is no Saudi law against women driving, but the government will not issue a woman a driver's license. Women do drive, usually pickup trucks, out in the country and in the desert.
But Saudi Arabia's harsh Wahabi version of Islam allows women virtually no rights, certainly not to drive. Women need the permission of their husband or male guardian to travel, study, hold a job, see the doctor, visit a government office or simply go outside. These religious strictures, like the dress code that calls for women to be completely covered, are enforced by religious police with nightsticks.
<NO1>King Abdullah, a reformer but a very cautious one, believes women will one day drive in his country, but he is ailing and his successor might not be so open-minded.
The driving ban is a growing source of international embarrassment to the kingdom but the factor ultimately driving the change is likely to be economic.
<NO>Women make up 60 percent of the country's college graduates, and they are an increasingly important to a skilled workforce. It does the economy no good if they can't get to work in a timely fashion. And the 800,000 to 1 million foreign workers imported to chauffeur them around drain $4 billion a year out of the economy in remittances.
But perhaps the biggest restraint on women driving is fear of the unknown, what it would do to the kingdom's carefully calibrated social order. One protesting women driver told the New York Times "even a small fight would be revolutionary for Saudi Arabia." That's exactly what the religious leaders and their conservative allies are afraid of.
Dale McFeatters is an editorial writer for Scripps Howard News Service.
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