Saudi women get license to speak, but not to drive

A groundbreaking talk show is just one venue where women are critiquing the rules that affect them.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Sexists who joke about women drivers should be humbled by the lesson of Saudi Arabia. The kingdom has one of the highest rates of traffic accidents in the world, with an average of 13 deaths a day, yet women are forbidden to drive.

Nevertheless, Saudi women who own cars are held accountable for traffic violations committed by their male drivers.

Some 75,000 Saudi women own cars and are held responsible for traffic violations if the culprit cannot be found, Brigadier Fahd ibn Saud al-Bishr, the director of the traffic department, recently told a Saudi newspaper.

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But in an example of a new spirit of openness, this law has been ridiculed by women commentators in a country where criticism of such topics was once taboo.

Penalizing women car owners for violations they have not committed may give them pause before exercising their relatively new right to own a car, Abeer Mishkhas, a prominent Saudi journalist has said. "It seems that with every step forward a woman takes in Saudi Arabia, an invisible hand pulls her back three steps," Ms. Mishkhas wrote in Arab News, an English language daily.

The kingdom's press reports that just as men are held responsible for their cars and the people they hire to drive them, women car owners must also be held responsible.

Ms. Mishkhas approves of "equality of responsibility," but not when the only say a woman has while in her own car is over the driver's speed.

Whenever the Saudi government has proposed a new way to give women a share in Saudi society, rules and regulations have crept in to dilute the new law so that it becomes useless, she complains.

"Yes, [a woman] can have [her] own ID card - but [her] male guardian must give his approval," Mishkhas wrote.

"Yes, [a woman] can have a passport - but [her] male guardian must give his permission for her to travel abroad. Yes, [a woman] can transact official business - but [her] male guardian must approve whatever she wants to do."

Addressing such issues in so outspoken a manner would have been taboo a few years ago. But recently, the conservative and often secretive kingdom has been under increasing pressure to open up and introduce social and political reforms.

Much of that pressure came from the United States in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, when it emerged that 15 of the 19 suicide hijackers were Saudis. But the soul-searching has also come from within the kingdom, particularly in the wake of the May suicide bombings of residential compounds in the capital of Riyadh, which killed 34 people.

These attacks disturbed the country so deeply that the government was forced to allow the media greater freedom. "Since Sept. 11, journalists are operating with more freedom to tackle social issues in particular," Mishkhas told the Monitor in a telephone interview.

And in a groundbreaking television show that debuted last month, eight Saudi women grappled with previously off-limits subjects, including the right to drive, unemployment, and political participation among women.

"It was the first time Saudi women were given a chance to give their opinion publicly like that. Not everyone reads the papers, but everyone watches television," Siham Fatani, a professor of English at King Abdul-Aziz University in Jeddah told the Associated Press about the new program, "Saudi Women Speak Out."

"Of course, this doesn't mean we are going to see women driving in the next few months. Reformers, like [Crown Prince] Abdullah, have always said somewhere along the line women will be allowed to drive, but then others say 'no way,' " says a European diplomat in Riyadh. "It's all part of the endless to and fro in Saudi Arabia."

Some daring women have found ways around the ban by disguising themselves as men or blacking out their car windows, although by law only the two rear windows can be tinted.

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