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>> Asharq Al-Awsat


WOMEN WILL DRIVE... BUT WHEN?

Asharq Al-Awsat - June 8, 2011

by Salman Aldossary

The Saudi populace has never been more preoccupied with a public opinion issue than the woman's right to drive. Saudis have been divided over the matter for more than 20 years: Allow women to drive, or prohibit them from doing so? Those in support of women's right to drive are astonished that Saudi Arabia is the only remaining country in the world where such a right is not recognized. For them, it is illogical that the Saudis should be of the view that they are right, whilst the rest of the world is wrong. Meanwhile, those in opposition, most of whom are conservatives, admit there is no legal fatwa forbidding women from driving, in terms of the act itself. However, they argue that their objection to the idea stems from what they call the "evil" consequences associated with the act of driving.

If hotly debated issues come and go in society, then whether or not to grant women the right to drive is the issue for every season in Saudi Arabia. When a young Saudi woman recently drove her car through a street in the town of Khobar, fierce controversy raged again over the matter. The argument has now become somewhat personal, with each side lodging credible and non-credible accusations. Perhaps the "hit them with the agaal" campaign, or the call to flog women who drive their cars, is one of the by-products of this extremist contention which, unfortunately, is not a recent phenomenon within the Saudi scene, but has been dominating the field for quite some time.

Prominent government officials have now entered the debate, to clarify the official position of the state. Pages have been created on Facebook siding with the idea or campaigning against it; and thousands have logged on to tip the scale in favor of one side over the other. Accounts on Twitter are devoted to launching support campaigns and casting doubts over opponents. We have seen comments pulsating with hatred and racism, and, as usual, only a handful of people respect the stances of their opponents. The majority of these internet users offer nothing but derogatory remarks about the opposing opinion, followed by accusations of betrayal, before singling themselves out as the true patriots of Saudi Arabia. "Everyone claims to be affiliated with Laila, but Laila returns no affection to any of them" [a line from a famous Arabic poem by Abu-l-'Atahiya (748-828), suggesting that everyone states their view as if it were correct, with no official or moral authority to do so].

This decline in the level of argument, as is the case with many other issues, proves that there are not many choices for those who think with a loud voice. Beware of leaning toward Secularists who want corruption to spread across this country. However, if you hold the opposite view, you would be charged with "backwardness", because you seek to place society under your guardianship. Subsequently, the majority's opinion is always hijacked by those with the loudest voice, greater presence, and graver threat. Phrases like "I'd die to defend your opinion" have become outdated clich├ęs and late night talk which fades before dawn. Suddenly, the most popular phrase is: "Be quiet...my opinion is correct and all others are wrong. Whoever comes up with a better view we will reject it."

Personally, I believe the question is not whether Saudi women will be granted the right to drive, but rather when this will happen. It is only a matter of time. If they are not granted that right this year, then they will be next year or the year after. I am not looking into a crystal ball here, this conclusion is a reality that is being shaped and felt by many. Such a step will undoubtedly be taken as long as the dispute is fundamentally social and not religious. There are around 8 million Saudi women today, and they roughly constitute half of the country's population. They cannot be prevented from making their own decisions. If a woman decides that she doesn't want to drive, no one can argue with her about that.

The bitter controversy surrounding the women's right to drive is a practical indication that a ferocious battle is being fought with those who refuse to acknowledge difference in opinion as a cultural necessity. Perhaps those people need to gain more discipline rather than knowledge.

 





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