Driving While Female

Last week Saudi housewife Najla al-Hariri made news by defying the ban on women drivers in Saudi Arabia. She drove around for four days in Jeddah "to defend her belief that Saudi women should be allowed to drive."

Yesterday I saw reports that a Saudi woman had been arrested for driving. Here's the odd way CNN put it, though:

A 32-year-old Saudi Arabian who has crusaded for women to drive in her country said she was stopped Saturday for driving a car -- even though there is no law against it.

No law against it? Why aren't women driving if there's no law against it? Why are they getting arrested or talking about getting arrested if it's perfectly legal? What does it mean to begin a report on a woman getting arrested in Saudi Arabia for driving by saying there's no law against driving? What, exactly, do we mean by saying that "there is no law" against female driving in Saudi Arabia?

Manal al Sharif, who says she was arrested, is one of the women behind an organization called Women2Drive. They had an interesting Twitter page last week but all of the tweets have since been deleted. The Facebook group “I will drive starting June 17” has also been deleted. It had some 13,000 fans last week.

Here's how the CNN piece explains the distinction:

While there are no traffic laws that make it illegal for women to drive in Saudi Arabia, religious edicts are often interpreted as a ban on female drivers.

Um, is this like saying "While there are no fire code laws that make it illegal for girls not wearing full Islamic dress to escape a burning school, religious edicts are often interpreted as a ban on girls doing just that"? I think most people are interested not in whatever the meager fire code or traffic law says but, rather, how the religious edicts are interpreted and why.

Other stories did a better job of explaining the distinction, I think. For instance, here's a Bloomberg report:

In Saudi Arabia, which enforces the Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam, women aren’t allowed to have a Saudi driver’s permit. They can’t travel or get an education without male approval or mix with unrelated men in public places and aren’t permitted to vote in municipal elections scheduled on Sept. 29.

Al-Sharif and other women are organizing a campaign on Facebook and Twitter urging Saudi women with international driver’s licenses to get into cars starting on June 17. Manal posted a video on Youtube.com of herself driving on May 19 in al-Khobar. More than half a million people have viewed the video.

So women aren't issued driver's licenses but if they have them elsewhere, they're being urged to drive on June 17. No word on whether a foreign driver's license is valid for these women.

Al-Sharif's lawyer Adnan Al-Saleh was interviewed for this Arab News piece.

Asked if there were laws against women driving, he said that there were fatwas issued against women driving, but not applied to the legislative authority.

"This is similar to the fatwa that considers smoking prohibited; yet cigarettes are sold in the market and smoked by people."

I'd still like much more detail here. If Islam doesn't ban females from driving (and most would say it doesn't), why are Saudi women having to protest to get the right to drive? I fear too much is assumed by reporters covering the story. I get that there might be complex reasoning coming from the religious police, but it would still be helpful to get even a few details about why women are treated the way they are in Saudi Arabia.

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