Saudi society sharply divided on letting women drive

Saudi society sharply divided on letting women drive
Recent comments made by Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman amid speculation from commentators has offered insight into attitudes shifting gear in Saudi Arabia.
3 min read
28 April, 2016
Full throttle: The handbrake is off in the debate over Saudi women driving [Getty]

The long-running debate about women being granted the right to drive in Saudi Arabia has been reignited once again following statements made by and attributed to Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.

The ambitious young prince, who this week unveiled bold economic reforms dubbed Vision 2030, reportedly told a former senior US military officer that he is ready to let women drive - but is waiting for the right moment to confront the conservative religious establishment.

"We believe women have rights in Islam that they've yet to obtain. If women were allowed to ride camels [in the time of the Prophet Muhammad], perhaps we should let them drive cars, the modern-day camels," the second-in-line to the Saudi throne reportedly said.

Applying the brake, however, he told reporters on Monday at the unveiling of his vast plan to transform the oil-addicted country, that society, not the government, would determine if and when women would be allowed to drive.

"So far the society is not persuaded - and it has negative influence - but we stress that it is up to the Saudi society. The future always brings about changes and we always hope the changes will be positive," Bin Salman said.

That there will be no U-turn in law likely came as a disappointment to many who think the young new policy-makers of the royal court should feel sufficiently empowered to take on the kingdom's ultra-conservative religious establishment.

He did, nonetheless, announce that part of his commitment to transforming the economy includes increasing women's participation in the workforce, from 22 percent to 30 percent within the next fifteen years.

Women's ability to work is severely hindered by the driving ban, unless they can afford drivers, as public transport networks remain limited across the country.

The debate may well be shifting gear, as the well-worn, yet still-controversial issue was challenged on social media, with two opposing Arabic-language hashtags, simply: #SaudiWomenAgainstWomenDriving versus #SocietyForWomenDriving

Translation: "The people who are opposed to women's needs are like people who stand in front of a violent flood and think they can keep it from getting into their homes. The flood is going to sweep you away and other like you, prepare yourselves."

Translation: "We are all against driving. I am a Saudi woman and I speak on behalf of the majority of women in our society: We don't want to drive, shut up already and drop it."

Saudi Arabia has some of the world's toughest restrictions on women, and is the only country where they cannot get behind the wheel.

The sexes are separated in restaurants and other public facilities. Women are also subject to male "guardians", family members who must authorise a woman's travel, work or marriage.