Right to drive is just part of a bigger picture

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By : Sabria S. Jawhar

There’s been some hoopla recently over a proposal from two Shoura Council members to allow Saudi women to obtain an international driver’s license in the Kingdom that would permit them to drive in foreign countries.

Possessing an international driver’s license at one time was seen as a path toward obtaining a Saudi driver’s license that would allow women to legally drive in Saudi Arabia. Authorities, however, refused to issue international licenses to Saudi women. It’s a good thing that the issue is now before the Shoura Council, but it is by no means the most important thing. In fact, it’s really a minor side issue to a much larger picture: The representation of Saudi women in government.

Both Saudi and western human rights activists have been preoccupied with the women’s driving issue as if it will cure all ills. While it is important that Saudi women have the right to drive a car, it does not solve the perplexing issue that many of us are denied some rights.

Instead, driving right is only a stepping-stone to full equality guaranteed to women in Islam. That is the thinking of Latifa Al-Shaalan and Haya Al-Mani, the two women Shoura Council members who introduced the amendment that would allow women to obtain an international driver’s license. And the fact the amendment is about driver’s licenses is irrelevant.

It’s more about the power of these two women who drafted the amendment, introduced it to the Shoura Council and having it sent to the proper committee for approval before being put before the Council for a vote.

If there were an argument that it’s better to work within the system than externally, the work of Al-Shaalan and Al-Mani would be the perfect example.

As we have witnessed since 1992, female driving demonstrations have had limited impact on Saudi women’s rights, other than to antagonize certain elements and whip up western activists who project their own feminist ideals on a culture they barely understand. On the other hand, conservatives have cleverly found ways to tamp down on demonstrations by putting pressure on the men in families to curb their daughters and sisters, impounding cars and waging whisper campaigns.

But Al-Shaalan and Al-Mani force the issue of women’s rights to the surface. By introducing the international driver’s license amendment, they force every Shoura Council member to reveal his or her position on the issue. It’s unlikely that the amendment will ever pass, but there will be little doubt exactly where the Shoura Council stands. And if the amendment should pass and become a recommendation of the Council, then the tired argument that “Saudi women will drive when Saudi society is ready” will be put to the test.

But whether the amendment passes or fails is beside the point. The proposal and others like it drafted by female Shoura Council members will result in accountability at the highest levels. Every time a proposal is made to ensure Saudi women their Islamic rights, every man and woman on the council must stand by their vote to deny such rights and answer to Saudi society why they abdicated their public service and religious responsibilities.

This is the power of a consultative body that measures the wants and needs of the community it serves and comes at a decision via a vote. By appointing 30 women to the Shoura Council, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah has introduced a new dynamic never witnessed in Saudi history: The voice of Saudi women — half of Saudi society — and accountability of those individuals who seek to silence that voice.

Email: sabria_j@hotmail.com

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