Saudi women want debate on driving

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Saudi women on the ultraconservative kingdom’s top advisory council have called for a discussion on the sensitive issue of allowing women to drive, a move that could embolden reformers pushing to lift the ban.

The official request was made this week to the head of the Shura Council, council member Latifa al-Shaalan said, to address all “excuses” raised to keep women from driving since Islamic law and Saudi traffic laws do not forbid it.

Women seeking the right to drive in Saudi Arabia have been energized by a campaign calling on them to drive on Oct. 26. Saudi law does not explicitly prohibit them from driving, but religious edicts by senior and influential clerics are enforced by the police, effectively banning it. Authorities do not issue driving licenses to women.

The campaign started as an online petition last month and has so far garnered nearly 15,000 signatures.

In 2011, a Saudi woman was detained for posting an online video of herself driving, though her arrest launched wider protests.

The country is guided by an ultraconservative interpretation of Islam called Wahhabism. Women cannot travel, work, study abroad, marry, get divorced or gain admittance to a public hospital without permission from a male guardian — typically a husband, brother, father or uncle.

Hard-line clerics have opposed the driving campaign and recently a prominent Saudi cleric caused a stir when he said medical studies show that driving has adverse effects on women’s ovaries because it forces the pelvis upward.

Al-Shaalan, the Shura Council member, told journalists that the recommendation for the discussion on women driving is not meant to coincide with the campaign and that it has been studied for a while.

“It is flawed that a woman cannot drive a car after reaching the position of deputy minister, becoming a member of the Shura Council, managing a university and representing the country on international bodies,” she said.

She said it is also counterintuitive to force a woman to ride in a car with a male driver who may be a stranger because it contradicts the kingdom’s strict rules on separation of the sexes.

While the Shura Council does not have legislative powers, the 30 women council members made history this year when they became the first females appointed to the body. The move by King Abdullah to give women a voice on the body was seen as part of a larger reform effort by the monarchy.

In 2011, King Abdullah said women can vote and run as candidates in the 2015 municipal elections. Last year, the kingdom began enforcing a law that allows women to work in female apparel and lingerie stores.

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