The latest discussion on allowing women in Saudi Arabia to drive suggests that the only thing more disconcerting to Saudi men than the notion of women behind the wheel, is the use of eyeliner by female drivers under age 30.
In 2010, the media widely reported on the case of a Saudi woman who was ordered to be given 10 lashes with a whip as punishment for driving a car in defiance of King Abdullah’s ban. The sentence in 2010 came just two days after the Saudi King decreed that women would be allowed to participate in municipal elections in 2015. He further promised to appoint women to the all-male Shura advisory council.
Over the past two years, a few women in Saudi Arabia have taken to the streets in defiance of the driving ban.
The current Associated Press story is already sparking controversy – and criticism – in the Saudi media. Al Arabiya News claims that the report is misleading and merely an echo of a rumor that has been floating around since it was first reported in 2008.
The reports from six years ago and now both detail a recommendation to the King that women be allowed to drive, but with some caveats Westerners may find baffling.
According to the AP report, a "female traffic department" under the supervision of the "religious agencies" be created in order to handle women with car trouble, other auto-related problems, and to issue fines.
According to Al Arabiya, “Among these, only women over 30 would be allowed to drive with permission from a male guardian and only from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Saturday through Wednesday and noon to 8 p.m. on Thursday and Friday, which is the weekend in the kingdom.”
The AP made a similar report but also included that the recommendation by the Shura is that only women over the age of 30 who do not wear any makeup be allowed to drive.
Human rights in Saudi Arabia are based on Islamic law, or the Sharia, under the rule of the Saudi royal family. Under that law the more orthodox and zealous Wahhabism has been the driving force behind women not getting behind the wheel.
According to the AP report the concern over women wearing makeup and driving is, “is imposed because the kingdom's ultraconservative Muslim clerics say ‘licentiousness’ will spread if women drive.”
This belief is rooted deep in the Wahhabi cultural bias toward women's roles in society.
It is important to clarify that Wahhabism does not represent all of the Islamic mindset where women’s rights are concerned, according to an Islam Daily report.
“Wahhabism was considered a small sect within Islam until the discovery of oil in Arabia, in 1938. Enormous oil revenues provided the means to spread the beliefs of Wahhabism throughout the Middle East. Saudi laypeople, government officials and clerics have donated many tens of millions of dollars to create Wahhabi-oriented religious schools, newspapers and outreach organizations,” according to Islam Daily.
While members of the Shura may indeed be running the idea of women behind the wheel past foreign media, ultimately the rules of the road are in the hands of a king who has previously passed the written test for women’s voting rights but failed the road test.