06/22/2011 04:00 pm ET Updated Aug 22, 2011

Saudi 'Suffragettes' Stifled by Religion and Politics

Saudi Arabian women ushered in a wave of new suffragettes when over 50 women risked arrest last Friday in defiance of the driving ban. Even riding a bicycle is forbidden to women in Saudi Arabia. In 2008, the governing Shura Council recommended women be allowed to drive but no law to that effect has been approved. The seemingly innocuous problem of women's right to drive presents a dilemma for the Saudi monarchy and a threat capable of rocking its theological foundations.

Last month, Manal al-Sharif was arrested and detained after driving a car and posting the event on YouTube. Another Saudi woman, Shalma Osama, drove to hospital, was arrested on the way home and released some hours later. She was receiving treatment for severe vitamin D deficiency, presumably associated with lack of sunlight due to full veiling.

Saudi feminist Wajeha Al-Huwaider collected names in public places and via an email appeal, for a petition that referred to Muslim women's historic right to freedom of movement and transport. Presented in 2007 to King Abdullah, the petition received considerable international media coverage. The Wall Street Journal even recommended a Nobel Peace Prize nomination for Al-Huwaider, who has also campaigned against the mahram or guardianship laws that give men control over women's lives, including permission to leave the house, education, medical treatment and applying for divorce.

Like King Abdullah, Al-Huwaider believes the right to drive is a social rather than religious issue.

Some men have become supporters of women's right to drive a car. During a television debate, Sleiman Al-Sleiman argued that chauffeurs were expensive. In addition, more women are working and need to drive to the workplace. Raid Qusti, Saudi journalist and male supporter of Muslim women's rights, believes patriarchal attitudes have shaped men's views of women as lacking the intelligence and competence to drive.

Arguments by supporters of the driving ban include erosion of modesty and unwanted Westernization of women. Many Saudis fear that women who drive would leave the house 'unsupervised for no good reason' and soon give up wearing the abaya, the long black cloak, the hijab headscarf and the niqab face covering.

If they were allowed to drive, women would be required to remove their veils for photo identification on drivers' licenses, a procedure viewed as unacceptable by many who consider that exposing a woman's face in public is a sin. As mixing of the sexes is forbidden, women's transportation centers would be required, and female traffic officers trained in new facilities under religious supervision. Women drivers would need careful monitoring in case they took passengers who were unrelated men, as such actions constitute punishable crimes. Examples of this prohibition include the 'Qatif Girl,' who was sentenced to flogging for being alone with a non-related man. Another case involved a woman who was arrested for having coffee with a male colleague. The mutaween, or religious police, claimed her actions had transgressed religious law'

Saudi women activists demand the right to drive as part of wider reforms that would include voting rights and empower women to make social, economic and political contributions to their society. Since ascending the throne in 2006, the elderly King Abdullah has embarked on a promising, although cautious reform agenda. The first woman minister was appointed in 2009, and women were permitted to travel abroad or stay in a hotel without a male guardian, provided the police were informed. Women were given permission to study law and register a business without initially hiring a male manager. When the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology was opened in 2009, the king stipulated that gender segregation be lifted in lecture halls, and a cleric who issued a fatwa against this ruling was dismissed. Last month, the king opened the largest women's university in the world near Riyadh.

However, the monarch's hands are largely tied. He may wish to release the spigot of reform but the strings of a powerful, fundamentalist religious autocracy control his fingers. Dating back to the politico-religious alliance in the mid 18th century between Prince Muhammad ibn Saud and a Muslim cleric, Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab, the kingdom has been locked in a symbiotic relationship that confers legitimacy on the monarchy to rule and oversee Islam's holiest sites, and grants wide powers over education and law to the religious authorities. The puritanical interpretation of Islam by the clerics was intensified after the influx of radical Egyptian Salafis in the 1960s, and later by the Iranian revolution that stimulated Saudi competition for regional dominance and religious orthodoxy.

Reversing the edict against women driving could undermine and unravel the religious laws that underpin the Saudi-Wahhabi order, and in these times of Arab unrest, sparks of feminist defiance might ignite the flames of revolt.

Vast oil reserves, Saudi investment in the West, particularly in the United States, and role as regional paymaster, have made the desert kingdom an indispensable partner of the West and a geopolitical player of enormous leverage.

It is not in the interests of the Saudi monarchy or the religious establishment to risk any political destabilization. Nor would the West, with vital strategic assets in the Gulf and commitment to Saudi security, countenance such a scenario. This may explain why Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, has given little public support for the women2drive campaign. For the moment, then, Saudi women might consider the less seditious options of exercise bikes, sitting at the wheel of video games or riding the odd camel.