Few expected it though everyone in the audience was utterly surprised when, a few days ago in Jeddah, Daliah Al Qurni, a student at King Abdul Aziz University pointedly asked Prince Khalid Al Faisal, the Governor of Makkah, whether she should aspire to serve as a future minister of health.
Prince Khalid did not discourage her, believing that prospective developments in the kingdom would open new doors to all citizens, perhaps aware that Saudi Arabia cannot boast a healthy economy without the talent of all its citizens.
Concurrent with this gathering, Saudi authorities detained Manal Al Sharif, after the activist uploaded a video of herself behind the wheel of a car in Al Khobar.
The 32-year-old computer security consultant, who is campaigning to overturn a ban on women drivers, became a YouTube sensation as thousands of people watched her video in which she discussed how she could drive in the countryside.
While Manal was released six hours after she was first arrested, police returned to her home after several complaints from religious leaders, to apprehend her once again. Beyond objections, however, what irked authorities was her campaign through Facebook that called for women to start driving on June 17.
Coincidentally, Najla Hairiri drove her car through Jeddah for four days, before she too was stopped. This 30-year-old Saudi housewife asserted her beliefs, and insisted that she was not afraid, because she was an honourable lady.
To be sure, many praiseworthy Badu women drove their pickup trucks in the desert for a very long time, while their urban counterparts could do likewise when visiting farms. By itself, therefore, such behaviour illustrated that most Saudi men were not against women driving, with some relishing the day when they would no longer have to assume this obligation.
Still, Saudi women faced multi-pronged dilemmas, which called for a serious reappraisal of their condition in the segregated society.
Price of freedom
An intriguing recent case, one of many that surfaced from time to time, was that of Samia, a single woman in her 40s from Madinah who is a practising surgeon. Samia lost two court cases when she sought a suspension of her father's guardianship to marry as she pleased. Sadly, her father and brothers, who insisted Samia marry a cousin, apparently abused her.
Consequently, and for the past five years, Samia lived in a shelter for battered women that added additional hardships as she sought a hearing at the kingdom's Supreme Court. The latter must now either uphold previous court orders or grant her inalienable rights.
Whether she will succeed remains to be determined but in the words of Grand Mufti Shaikh Abdul Aziz Al Shaikh, the kingdom's highest ranking religious authority, "forcing a woman to marry someone she does not want and preventing her from wedding [the man] whom she chooses ... is not permissible".
In the event, this and many similar cases illustrated the gap that must be closed, even as Riyadh welcomed a recommendation from the United Nations Human Rights Council to abolish the guardianship system in 2009. To no avail.
For some critics, the June 17 ‘Women2Drive' campaign may be dismissed just like the November 6, 1990 episode, when a group of women drove through the streets of Riyadh before they were detained.
At the time, several reportedly lost their employment, some saw their passports confiscated, while male guardians were humiliated by zealous religious figures.
In the 21st century, and despite rigid social customs that make such a mundane necessity illegal, Saudi Arabia can no longer afford to neglect how it tackles this issue. There is nothing to fear from Saudi women driving since millions of other Muslim women get behind the wheel without experiencing an erosion of moral values.
Beyond pledges to lift the social ban, the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques ought to consider a blanket order, explaining that the Holy Scriptures, which guide Saudis in their socio-political outlooks, seldom forbade productivity.
Clearly, Saudi women deserve an equal opportunity to flourish, and since the driving ban as well as a myriad other restrictions are a social rather than a religious issue, the King ought to separate religiosity from community norms. The point is not to create fresh controversies but to harness indigenous talent without enlarging the dissent gulf that separates productivity and idleness.
In 2011, a daughter should not be a reason for grief, and no devout believer ought to discriminate against women. To be sure, many societies impose strict norms, with some societies in India perceiving baby girls as unwanted yokes while China enforces a single baby policy.
Still, Saudi Arabia remains the only country in the world that imposes such strict guardianship conditions and prohibits women from driving.
The time is long overdue to let the kingdom's Manals drive children to school or shop at peace, and allow her Samias operate on patients to save lives but, more important, Riyadh ought to let Daliahs be educated enough to serve as future ministers of health. She and a majority of Saudi women must be given the chance to assume their full responsibilities if the kingdom is to transform itself into a world-class economic power.
By Dr Joseph A. Kechichian
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