Saudi Shoura Councilwomen Want to End Driving Ban

Three female members of Saudi Arabia’s Shoura Council on Tuesday introduced a recommendation to lift the ban on women driving. Councilwoman Latifah Ashaalan said on Twitter that she, along with her colleagues Haya al-Manea and Mona Masheet, recommended giving women the right to drive cars in accordance with Sharia and traffic regulations.

This step comes about 3 weeks before a planned day of protest on October 26 when women activists will challenge the ban on driving by getting behind the wheel in different cities around the kingdom.

However, Ashaalan told al-Hayat daily that the recommendation in the Council has been in the works for months and has nothing to do with the protest campaign. Ashaalan told the newspaper it is “shameful” that Saudi women are not allowed to drive even after many of them reached senior positions in government, adding that the ban has become an “embarrassment” to the country on the international level.

King Abdullah appointed 30 women to the Shoura Council for the first time last February. The King told American journalist Barbara Walters in 2005 that it will be possible to lift the ban on women driving but said that the “issue will require patience.”

As soon as the female members joined the Council, many of them expressed their desire to push the driving ban issue under the dome of Shoura. Prominent conservative cleric Nasser al-Omar criticized these female members and questioned their motives.

“Corrupt beginnings lead to corrupt results,” he warned on Twitter in February. “Wait for more Westernization.”

Last month women activists launched a new online campaign calling for an end to the ban and asking women to drive their cars on October 26. Saudi authorities blocked the campaign website, but more than 14,000 people have already signed the petition published by the organizers.

This will be the third time for Saudi women to challenge the ban on driving. In November 1990, 47 women drove their cars in protest on some major roads in the capital Riyadh. That daring act was forcibly stopped by the police, and women who participated were prohibited from traveling outside the country, fired from their government jobs and denounced in mosques by conservative clerics.

In June 2011, at the height of the Arab Spring, Saudi women made a second attempt to lift the driving ban. After weeks of campaigning on social media, more than 50 women drove their cars in different parts of the country. The police appeared to ignore the female drivers. There was no mass arrests, and only two women who were stopped but they were shortly let go after signing a pledge.

As activists are gearing up for their third attempt, some women have already begun driving in Riyadh and Jeddah and posting videos of themselves behind the wheel over the past two weeks.

“I’m driving my car in a street near my house,” said a veiled woman in this video that was uploaded to YouTube on Monday. “People are looking without disapproval, as if we have been driving for quite some time.”