Thursday, July 10, 2008

Still in the passenger seat

Saudis on the highway to change

By Crispin Thorold
BBC News, Jeddah

See original article

Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where women are not allowed to drive.

But some like the writer and activist Wajeha Huwaider are now publicly campaigning for a change to the law.

They were opposing women's education in the 1960s, but the government took the action and they made it a law
Wajeha Huwaider
She caused a media storm earlier this year by posting a film of herself driving in Saudi Arabia on the video sharing website YouTube.

We meet at a car showroom in Jeddah where she wanders around looking at the vehicles on sale.

Saudi women may be banned from driving cars but they are free to purchase vehicles.

"Look at these cars, it is amazing," said Ms Huwaider, who within minutes is sitting behind the wheel of an albeit stationary jeep.

"It feels great and sad at the same time because I know I cannot drive it.

"They were opposing women's education in the 1960s, but the government took the action and they made it a law. So now we want the same thing. We need brave decisions to be taken and to be taken soon."

Changing society

As the international oil price surges, so does wealth in Saudi Arabia. With the petrodollars are coming calls for social reform in parts of this kingdom.

The drive for liberalisation is being led by women and men in the Westernised urban elite.

People like the Jeddah Boyz, a gang of trendy young men in their 20s who modify or "pimp" sports cars.

Saudi auto enthusiasts pimp their rides

The Jeddah Boyz spend tens of thousands of dollars turning relatively bland vehicles into a boy racer's dream, but it's not just men who are getting cars pimped.

Spend long enough on the streets of Jeddah and you will notice a pink Hummer, encrusted with fake diamonds.

The princess who owns this Hummer has even fitted Gucci interiors. All this for a car that she cannot drive.

If the rumours in Saudi Arabia are to be believed, that may change soon. Leading members of the government and clerics have said that there is nothing in the Koran that prevents women driving.

Not a challenge

The challenge is getting society to accept a change in the law.

However leading Saudi businessmen believe that the focus on driving is obscuring greater challenges for women in the kingdom.

"This problem of women driving is an Anglo-Saxon question," said Saleh al-Turki, the Chairman of the Saudi Chambers of Commerce.

Wajeha Huwaider is keen to get on the road

Mr Turki argues that before the driving ban is lifted more women must enter the workforce. At the moment just one in 20 is employed.

"Once the rest of the society realise that allowing women to work is not a challenge to anybody, it is to the benefit of society, to the benefit of the family, driving will not become a problem in my opinion," said Mr Turki.

In the meantime, a small number of women's activists are using the internet to try to force change, quickly.

The film that Wajeha Huwaider posted on YouTube was the continuation of a campaign that started a year ago.

So far the government has not formally responded. Although it seems that the government is more relaxed about the YouTube video than it has been about dissent in the past - at least none of the campaigners have been arrested yet.

"It has nothing to do with religion," said Ms Huwaider. "So we don't know why they don't lift the ban."

"But we are still hoping that it will happen. I am sure that it is going to happen during [King] Abdullah's time."

This remains though a deeply conservative Muslim country dominated by tribes and a clerical establishment and until the government officially lifts the ban few other women are likely to get behind the wheel.

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