The Case for Women Driving in Saudi Arabia

06/16/2011 10:48 am ET | Updated Aug 15, 2011

Now that Manal Alsharif, the young Saudi woman who has been campaigning for the right to drive in her country, has safely been released from detention and this whole row seems to have settled down a bit; it might be worthwhile to set the record straight on some of the main issues related to this unusual ban.

(a snap-shot of Alsharif's YouTube video which has caused her arrest late last month)

First and foremost: It is well-known that it is not 'Haram' (religiously forbidden) in Islam for women to drive. In fact, Saudi Arabia is the only Muslim country in the whole world where this unique situation seems to be imposed.

Secondly, there is no law that prohibits females from driving nor is it true that having females behind steering wheels goes against society's norms and traditions. One only has to refer to King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz's 2008 interview with Barbara Walters when he openly mentioned that there are parts of the country, such as the desert and rural areas, where women have long been driving.

In this same interview, the Saudi Monarch, abundantly renowned for his honesty and straightforwardness, emphasised his firm support for women's rights adding that he believes that 'women will drive on day' in the Kingdom.

Yet, despite the King making his view public and the matter not being religiously, legally or socially forbidden -- Any breach of this 'convention' by urban women still leads to arrest and ostracism as Alsharif's case recently has proven and as portrayed by author Robert Lacey in his 2009 book 'Inside the Kingdom', where the historian sheds the light on similar attempts which took place during the 1991 Gulf War period.

The obvious question here is: so why is it the case that this ban still exists? And why doesn't the King just issue a royal decree to end this debacle once and for all?

Well, Barbara Walters asked the same question and King Abdullah's answer was that it is because he respects his people and that he wouldn't do anything that is unacceptable to them.

Yes, checks and balances do exist in Saudi Arabia, though in its own way. Let us not forget, the country has a large number of highly conservative members of governments, clerics and families who would strongly oppose such a step.

To many of these ultra-conservatives, granting women the liberty to roam freely is associated with bringing social damage and corruption to the country which hosts the 'Two Holy Shrines' of Islam.
Relatively similar accusations of being 'too liberal' and 'too westernized' were actually the motives behind the infamous Juhayman Al-Otaibi take-over of the Grand Mosque of Mecca back in 1979.

On the other hand, it can't be denied that King Abdullah has been quite a courageous reformer on many accounts. During his reign, a Saudi woman was appointed to the Council of Ministers for the first time ever; he also personally interfered to spare the 'Qatif Girl' from what could have been an unjust court order and let us not forget the inauguration of K.A.U.S.T, Saudi Arabia's first 'Co-ed' university.

What also doesn't help the women driving cause may very well be a particular sensitivity among top officials to any attempt to enforce anything within the country by rallying people for it.

(The profile picture for the recently launched solidarity group 'We are all Manal Alsharif' on Facebook)

You see, to many security officials the problem probably isn't that Alsharif sat behind a wheel and drove; but it is the mere fact that she attempted to start a campaign. To these security officials, who advise and lobby accordingly, such acts must not be tolerated and a strong message should always be sent to anyone who might have the desire to do something similar one day .

Let us also not turn a blind eye that there are women in Saudi Arabia who simply don't want to drive and have no issue with being chauffeured around everywhere they go. Of course, the counter argument would be that there are others who feel strongly that driving is one of their basic rights and of course, not all families can afford a dedicated driver for their women to carry on with their lives.

However, we really don't have to dwell into the argument of if driving is a right or not nor if driving is a necessity rather than a luxury, for the argument is much simpler than all this; The Basic Law of Saudi Arabia states that the Quran is the constitution of the country and that the Kingdom is to be governed on the basis of Islamic Law (Sharia). As there is nothing in Sharia that prohibits women from driving then would it be right for us as adherers of Islam to prohibit a matter which God has allowed?