Shura Council calls to reconsider Saudi driving ban on women

Published November 8th, 2014 - 11:59 GMT

The Saudi King’s advisory council recently recommended that the government lift its female driving ban. The proposal suggested driving for women over 30, who must be off the roads by 8 p.m. and cannot wear makeup behind the wheel. This recommendation of removing the ban is a major shift of policy, the Associated Press reports.

The Shura Council’s recommendations are not obligatory. However, after years of the Saudi government rejecting any review of the ban, the recommendation is a major step.

Women have led small, but increasingly bold protests with their cars over the past year. Saudi’s driving ban is unique in the world, and it is imposed because the kingdom’s extremely conservative Muslim preachers claim “licentiousness” will spread if women drive.

According to a council member, the Shura Council made the recommendations in a secret, closed session last month, the Associated Press reports. The member spoke on anonymity because the recommendations are not yet public.

The recommendations would only allow women over 30 to drive with permission from a male relative. They would be allowed to drive from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday through Wednesday and noon to 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday. It is unclear why the Shura Council proposed different driving times for women on Thursday and Friday.

The conditions also require that women wear conservative dress and no makeup behind the wheel, the official said to Associated Press. Within cities, they would be able to drive without a male in the car, but outside of cities, a male would be required.

The Shura Council said a “female traffic department” would have to be created to deal with female drivers when their cars break down or if they encounter other problems. They recommended that female traffic officers be placed under supervision of “religious agencies.”

The council also suggested stiff restrictions on interactions between female drivers and male traffic officers or other male drivers, and stiff penalties for those breaking them. Speaking to a female driver would be punishable by a one-month prison sentence and a fine.

The 150-member Shura Council is appointed by the king, drawing on the various sectors of society to represent various interests, though it cannot make laws. King Abdullah appointed women to the council for the first time, and now there are 30 female members.

The driving ban is a part of the general societal restrictions on women based on the conservatively strict Wahhabist interpretation of Sharia Law. Genders are strictly segregated, and women are always required to wear a headscarf and black robes in public. Saudi’s guardianship laws require women to get permission from a male relative to travel, get married, enroll in higher education, or undergo certain surgical procedures.

Female activists launched a new campaign in defiance of the driving ban on Oct. 26, when dozens of women drove around their neighborhoods and posted clips of themselves driving on social media, Associated Press reports. 

While Saudi Arabia has no written law barring women from driving, they rely on fatwas, or religious edicts from senior preachers. Nevertheless, following the campaign, the Saudi government issued a statement saying violators of the driving ban would be firmly dealt with.

Campaigns to overturn the driving ban have gone on for decades.

During the first major protest in 1990, around 50 women drove. They were jailed for a day, had their passports confiscated, and lost their jobs. Their male relatives were also punished by being banned from travelling for six months.

More recently, in June 2011, 40 women drove in a protest that was sparked when a woman was arrested for posting a video of herself driving. One of the 40 women was arrested and sentenced to 10 lashes, but the penalty was overturned by the king. 

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