Opinion Columns & Blogs

Will women drive reform in Saudi Arabia?

This month's driving protest by Saudi women, despite significant hype and international coverage, was a far cry from the massive demonstrations that have rocked other Arab countries this revolutionary season. Only a few dozen women got behind the wheel — roughly the same number as during the most recent public driving protest, 20 years ago.

The government looks at the numbers and maintains, straight-faced, that women's rights are simply not a big deal to most Saudis. The party line remains the same as King Abdullah expressed to Barbara Walters in a 2005 interview: While he personally believes "strongly in the rights of women," he said, he would not issue a royal decree to allow them to drive. "I cannot do something that is unacceptable in the eyes of my people."

The problem for him now is that many of his people have been looking at YouTube, where the protest is amplified over and over. There, videos posted by protesters show that the world is not upended when women are in the driver's seat. In many of the videos, husbands, fathers and brothers are sitting in the passenger seat, beaming proudly. The women are simply going about their ordinary chores — and changing conservative mores along the way.

Saudi restrictions on women are not going to melt away. More likely, a growing middle-class acceptance of women's rights — promoted by activists, business leaders, educators, journalists and even moderate religious leaders — will exacerbate the long-simmering tensions between tradition and modernity, between fundamentalist and moderate Islam, that have gripped Saudi society for decades.

Why? Because control over women is at the heart of the harsh version of Islam that Saudi theocracy imposes on the country.

But more and more Saudis question the restrictions imposed on them in the name of religion.

Twenty years ago, the first group of intrepid women who drove around Riyadh were roundly denounced in the media and labeled "whores" and "infidels." Those working in the public sector were fired by royal decree. Religious authorities quickly issued Fatwas formally banning women from driving.

This time Manal al-Sharif, the woman arrested in May for posting videos of herself driving, was quickly lauded as the "Rosa Parks of Saudi Arabia." Her Facebook group, Women2Drive, had more than 20,000 members within a few weeks.

Saudi critics have mocked the Women2Drive campaign and disparaged its leaders. A dueling Facebook site urged men to beat women if they dared to drive. The site was taken off Facebook for inciting violence, but not before thousands "liked" it.

But several prominent men have urged in opinion pieces that women be allowed to drive, and some outspoken members of the advisory Shura Council have criticized the driving ban in economic terms. They decry the need to import nearly 1 million foreign chauffeurs, who send home more than $4 billion in annual remittances, as a drain on the Saudi economy. Important business leaders have stressed the inefficiencies caused by the ban and the embarrassment on the international stage.

Even some moderate Islamic scholars say there is no religious justification for preventing women from driving.

The clerical establishment will not roll over on this issue or on any others pertaining to women's rights. So Saudi women — and men — will have to fight for them and force the royals to choose sides.