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Saudi Religious Police Clamp Down on Rural Women Drivers

Perhaps one of the most misunderstood aspects of Saudi society in the non-Arab world is the myth that all Saudi women are banned from driving cars. Read any English-language news periodical and the message is absolute: It's illegal for Saudi women to drive.

Well, that's kinda-sorta-usually-but-not-always true.

For decades, Saudi women have been driving on highways and streets outside of urban areas. They must drive because their families' survival depends on it. While men are working, wives are tasked with taking the kids to school, transporting livestock to market, and managing the house. They also drive big tankers to bring drinking water to their villages. Many of these women are also Bedouins who travel from village to village earning a living by transporting goods.

This is not a case of heading down to the local Danube supermarket for a box of corn flakes. This is a long drive, sometimes hundreds of miles, over a harsh desert environment usually in a 2-ton Mercedes truck or a Hilux pickup. These moms, some who arm themselves with a handgun for protection while driving alone, are a hardworking, tough lot that can handle a truck better than most men.

I remember as a child my uncle in one of the Yanbu villages going to work at 4 each morning, leaving the management of the house, the family and the harvesting of their crops to my aunt. She drove all over the region to make sure not only her kids but the extended family were cared for.

As a practical issue, the police and Hiy'a (Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, commonly referred to as the religious police) can't effectively patrol these remote areas. For the most part, women have had free reign in driving vehicles where they please.

Common sense, which is not always a prime ingredient when journalists address perceived wrongs with Saudi Arabia, tells us that it's impractical and dangerous to ban all Saudi women from driving. Of course, Saudi conservatives, and that includes some members of the Commission, share the same problem.

Although rural women have had it pretty easy on the roads, apparently there can be too much of a good thing. Last week, the Hiy'a filed a complaint with the administrative ruler of the Hail region in which they asked him to ban 15 village women from driving their cars and trucks. Now, women who make sure the family's chickens and goats get to market and keep the village supplied with water, are without transportation.

These women can't hire a driver because their primary means of transportation is a pickup truck, which forces them into a state of khalwa -- or seclusion with a non-relative male -- as they sit beside the driver.

Consider what is more dangerous: a woman driving a truck or a woman alone with a male stranger in the middle of nowhere. The female breadwinner is faced with the double whammy of being denied the right to use a vehicle to contribute to the household income and the
right to hire a driver as a solution to her economic problem.

Many Saudis support the idea of enforcement of our moral and religious obligations. Indeed, it's addressed in the Qur'an. But it's quite another thing to mess with hardworking families who depend on the motor vehicle to make ends meet. For decades Saudi law authorities recognized that ranch and farm families were an exception to the driving ban edict because a family's livelihood depended on a vehicle. They understandably turned a blind eye. That right apparently has been taken from them for no reason other than the conservatives feel threatened by it.

Saudi Arabia is in a period of great transition, and there is an expectation of movement forward, not backward. Naturally there are many people who prefer the comfort of the past. Perhaps forcing working rural women to return to camels and donkeys as transportation makes some people feel more comfortable. But their comfort comes at the expense of the working family.