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Opinion

Saudi ban on women driving is against Islam

Saudi women protesting the ban on driving can point to the very genesis of Islam to defend their right to get behind the wheel: The wives of prophet Muhammad rode camels and horses and moved about independently.

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Islam does not prohibit women from driving, moving in public spaces, or exercising their own agency. Saudis know this. Further, Saudis know what I, as a Muslim woman, know: Islam particularly safeguards the autonomy of womanhood through preserving financial independence of women, their ownership of properties, their right to inheritance, to vote, to divorce, and to marry or refuse marriage. Examining the modern Muslim world however, one struggles to find evidence of these rights.

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Immobilizing women for political purposes

Political conservatives practicing brands of contemporary radical Islamist values back the literal immobilization of woman for explicitly political purposes – to preserve male power and advantage. But disempowering women hurts Islamic society by suppressing the potential of half the population. The driving ban itself harms Saudi Arabia – including men, many of whom decry the ruling.

Families must have one car for the husband and one for the wife. They must employ expatriate drivers and provide them salary, housing, healthcare, and immigration. Between 800,000 and 1 million foreign drivers go toward supporting this ideology, an enormous burden on a state already lacking in employment opportunities and straining to provide welfare for its growing population.

Many Saudi families simply do not have the means, leaving women without public transport to hail cabs with questionable drivers at significant personal risk or remain stranded at home.

If only Saudi Arabia could conquer its own self-inflicted myopia toward women driving – and overcome many of the other disparities between men and women. Then energies could be directed at solving real challenges. Unfettered by artificial limitations, Saudi men and women could at last collaborate to meet the challenges of a fast approaching post-petrochemical era, for instance. Fully realized through the empowerment of its entire citizenry, Saudi Arabia could finally become a sobering compass of stability in a region of overt turmoil.

And ultimately, Saudi women could at last have a chance to be defined more by what they can do, than what they cannot. Saudi women are brave enough to act on this. The real question is whether their patriarchal authorities are equals in courage to the forebears of their own great faith.

Qanta A. Ahmed is the author of In the Land of Invisible Women,” detailing her experience practicing medicine in Saudi Arabia. She is associate professor of medicine at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Stony Brook; honorary professor at Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland; and a 2010 Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science and Religion. Follow Dr. Ahmed on Facebook, Twitter (@MissDiagnosis), and her Huffington Post blog.

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