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Thursday, June 02, 2005

Saudi Arabia Mulls Ban On Women Drivers

DONNA ABU-NASR, Associated Press Writer

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia - All he was asking, says Mohammad al-Zulfa, was that his fellow legislators think — just think — about studying the possibility of allowing women — not all of them, just some — to drive.

But circumspect though he was, he has touched off a fierce controversy, pitting women's rights campaigners against conservatives who believe that lifting Saudi Arabia's ban on women drivers is un-Islamic and will lead to permissiveness.

There have been calls to kick al-Zulfa off the Consultative Council, the all-male legislative arm appointed by the king, and even to strip him of Saudi citizenship. His cell phone constantly rings with furious calls accusing him of encouraging women to commit the double sins of discarding their veils and mixing with men. A phone text message prays Allah will freeze his blood. Chat rooms bristle with accusations that al-Zulfa is "driven by carnal instincts."

The uproar — and the fact that it cuts both ways — underscores the divisions in Saudi society between the guardians of its super-strict Islamic codes of behavior and those who want to usher in more liberal attitudes.

Conservatives, who believe women should be shielded from strange men, say women in the driver's seat will be free to leave home alone and go when and where they please; to unduly expose their eyes while driving; to interact with strange men such as traffic cops and mechanics.

"Driving by women leads to evil," Munir al-Shahrani wrote in a letter to the Al-Watan daily. "Can you imagine what it would be like if her car broke down? She would have to seek help from men."

On the other hand, Abdulrahman al-Rashed, a Saudi who is general manager of Al-Arabiya television, says the issue should be dealt with before it becomes more divisive.

"It's inconceivable that in a country of 25 million, a third of them are women who wait for a driver every day to take them to school, the hospital and relatives' homes," he wrote in a column in the Asharq al-Awsat newspaper.

Al-Zulfa, the legislator, contends that the ban exists neither in law nor Islam, but is based on fatwas, or edicts, by senior clerics who say women at the wheel create situations for sinful temptation.

It is the same argument used to restrict other freedoms. Without written permission from a male guardian, women may not travel, get an education or work. They cannot mix with men in public or leave home without wearing black cloaks.

The driving ban applies to all women, Saudi and foreign, and forces families to hire live-in drivers. These drivers are allowed to be alone with women because, Al-Zulfa explained, clerics deem this a lesser evil than driving. Women whose families cannot afford $300-400 a month for a driver rely on male relatives to chauffeur them around.

In November 1990, when U.S. troops were in Saudi Arabia following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, some 50 women defied the ban and drove cars. They were jailed for one day, their passports were confiscated and they lost their jobs.

Al-Zulfa brought up the issue a month ago in an open session of the Consultative Council, during a discussion of traffic accidents and chauffeurs.

"I know that talking about women driving is taboo, so I decided to take advantage of our discussions to bring up the topic," said al-Zulfa, a 61-year-old, Western-educated man with a salt-and-pepper mustache and a ready smile.

He proposed a study of the issue, arguing that relaxing the ban would save money and lives, because he believes women are cautious drivers.

He suggested that only women over age 35 or 40 be allowed to drive — unchaperoned on city streets but accompanied by a male guardian on highways.

Al-Zulfa put the proposal in writing, but council head Sheik Saleh bin Humaid, apparently worried about conservative reaction, has not responded.

Many women activists welcomed al-Zulfa's suggestion.

Nadine al-Budair, a Saudi writer, said in a column in Al-Watan newspaper that women, unrepresented on the council, hope it will support al-Zulfa. "How long will women remain shrouded in the sad color of black and hiding in back seats like devils, while the men are covered angel-like in happy, pure white clothes that guarantee them the front seat?" she wrote.

But other activists, like Wajiha al-Huweidar, who writes for the online Elaph publication, accuse al-Zulfa of using the issue to project himself as a reformer.

"Saudi women will not allow the intellectuals to shine and their names to glitter at our expense," she wrote.

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