Saudi advisory body to tackle female driving ban

A woman takes part in a CrossFit class in Jeddah

Riyadh’s Consultative As­sembly, known as the Shura Council, is to re­view one of Saudi Ara­bia’s most polarising domestic issues: Its ban on female driving.
A member of the council said a recommendation to grant the king­dom’s female populace the right to obtain driver’s licences would be proposed for the advisory body to vote on within a month.
“A significant number of assem­bly members are concerned with the issue, with 20 members open­ly supporting the initiative,” an unidentified member of the Shura Council told the Okaz daily in Saudi Arabia.
A similar campaign was advanced by three female council members in 2013 but was rejected for discussion by the Shura Council.
Saudi Arabia’s official press agen­cy issued a statement at the time saying the issue was “irrelevant” to the discussions pertaining to the kingdom’s Transport Ministry and did not fall in its sphere of respon­sibilities. This was preceded by a petition signed by 3,000 Saudis urging the Shura Council to debate the issue.
The Shura Council is an advisory body of 150 members, including 30 women. Proposals can be discussed if more than 50% of members vote in favour. While the Shura Council cannot pass laws, it can forward legislation to be approved by the king.
The Saudi female driving ban is a contentious issue, especially as the kingdom pushes for reform and modernisation. Many citizens, including a significant number of women, support the ban.
The ban was unofficial for dec­ades but codified into law after 47 female Saudi activists drove in Ri­yadh in protest in November 1990. They were imprisoned for one day and had their passports confis­cated. An official statement was released stating the female drivers had contradicted “Islamic conduct” and that women were banned from driving in Saudi Arabia.
Since then there have been spo­radic acts of defiance but none as prominent as the 1990 protest.
The kingdom has made signifi­cant strides in women’s rights in recent years, beginning with initia­tives launched by the late King Ab­dullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and carried through and accentuated by the reigning monarch, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.
During King Abdullah’s reign, the first co-ed university was launched. The late monarch also appointed the first female cabinet member, Norah al-Faiz, who served as depu­ty minister of education.
In 2012, Saudi women partici­pated in the Olympics for the first time and restrictions on women in education and employment were eased. This prompted Christine La­garde of the International Monetary Fund to call the late king a “strong advocate for women.”
In 2015, Saudi women ran for the first time in the kingdom’s elections and 20 were elected to seats in the municipal council. In June, Saudi women celebrated a decree by King Salman easing aspects of the coun­try’s male guardianship system, including women being given inde­pendent access to government ser­vices, jobs, education and health care.
The following month it was de­cided that, starting in 2018, Saudi girls in public school would be per­mitted to have physical education lessons as part of the school cur­riculum.
The kingdom’s Vision 2030 eco­nomic initiative’s mission state­ment refers to women as a “great asset” that can help develop the kingdom and its economy, leading a significant part of the population to believe the ban on female driving would be lifted in the near future.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.