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Saudi Arabia Blocks Online Petition to Lift Ban on Women Drivers

BY Jessica McKenzie | Thursday, October 10 2013

An alternative headline

The drive to get Saudi women behind the wheel has been long and arduous. Women have been protesting the ban on women drivers since the early '90s. An online petition created in September has thrust the issue into the spotlight once more, with everyone from the religious police to pseudo-scientists weighing in. In what seems like promising news, three women, members of the council that advises King Abdullah, recommended earlier this week that the ban on women driving be lifted. But the country-wide blocking of the online petition suggests authorities are not yet ready to listen, in spite of their claims otherwise.

The ban on women drivers is actually not as cut and dry as it might seem. There is no law that explicitly bans women from getting behind the wheel, but there is no way for them to apply for a license, either. In the past, women who have gotten behind the wheel have been arrested for things like disturbing public order.

In 1990, when women staged the first big protest of the ban, the dozens of participants drove around the capital Riyadh until arrested by police. Many of the women lost their jobs, they were denounced in mosques, and they faced lifelong discrimination for being 'drivers.'

Overturning the 'ban' on women drivers, then, is in many ways just as much about changing public (and official) opinion as it is about giving women a mechanism to apply for and receive a license.

Sheikh Abdulatif Al al-Sheikh, the head of the Saudi Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice—known informally as the religious police—said last month that no religious texts forbids women from driving, but that he has no authority to reverse the government ban.

Where religion failed, “science” then tried to step up. Judicial and psychological consultant to the Gulf Psychological Association gave the following justification to the online Saudi newspaper Sabq:

In addition, if the woman drove without a necessity this may affect her physiology negatively; in the science of functional physiology this issue has been studied and it affects the ovaries spontaneously, affects thrusting the pelvis upwards, thus we find that most of those who drive cars continuously deliver children with varying degrees of clinical dysfunction. [Global Voices translation]

Since Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that still bans women from driving, it's a miracle that children are ever born without said “clinical dysfunction.”

In their petition to the government, the Saudi activists have tapped into the ongoing conversation about women drivers. They ask the state if, since there is no law prohibiting women from driving, religious or otherwise, then they should be provided a way of getting a license. Barring that, they want the government to provide a legal justification for the ban.

The activists also attack the government's stance that they are leaving this up to “societal consensus”—pointing out that there is no forum for society to express what it wants.

Moreover, if the government continues to block the online petition—which they did on September 29, and then again, blocking a mirror site on October 7—then they are deliberately interfering in societal discourse.

For a selection of tweets from both sides of the debate, see this post on Global Voices Online. Highlights include @mshanarm, who tweeted a brilliant twist to “Don't drink the Kool-Aid”: “Those who are calling for a women driving protest Oct 26th are a tribe who have been breastfed by the West and they grew big and fat drinking that milk. [Global Voices translation]”

Another poster suggested women driving is a gateway drug for drugs, communism and liberalism.

But @ahmed really summed the debate up with: “Saudi Cleric Says Crazy Shit #NotNews.”

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