In many nations, the privilege of driving a car requires a minimum age, passing a test and honouring the laws of the road. But women in Saudi Arabia don’t even get a chance. They are not issued licenses, an informal but very deliberate discrimination in a male-dominated and deeply traditional society. Women must rely on men to drive them everywhere.
On Oct. 26, a group of about 60 women, in a display of defiance and common sense, staged a protest, getting behind the wheel despite threats and warnings from the authorities. About 16 were detained and fined, and the protest drew wide attention. Three women members of the Shura council, an advisory body, have come out in favor of lifting the ban, although so far nothing has come of it.
At the same time, the Saudi authorities appear to be responding vigorously to protests against the absolute monarchy, often using the kingdom’s Sharia-based justice system giving judges wide powers of interpretation.
On Wednesday, Oct. 30, the authorities released a blogger, Hamza Kashgari, in Jeddah, after 625 days in prison without charge or trial. He was detained in February 2012 after posting three tweets that were viewed as disrespectful of the prophet Muhammad. On the same day that he was released, a prominent Saudi human rights lawyer, Waleed Abu al-Khair, said he was sentenced to three months in prison for signing a petition in 2011 that demanded political reforms and denounced the imprisonment of a group of activists. He faces other charges in separate proceedings as well, all stemming from his human rights work. On Oct. 27, the authorities detained a columnist, Tariq al-Mubarak, who supported ending the ban on women driving.
Also in recent weeks, Saudi Arabia’s human rights record was subject to periodic review at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva. The United States voiced concern about restrictions on freedom of religion and association; Britain called for abolition of the Saudi system of male guardianship for women; and Germany called for a moratorium on the use of the death penalty.
The Saudi representative defended the nation’s commitment to human rights. But reports submitted to the council tell a different story. According to Human Rights Watch, the kingdom has convicted seven prominent human rights and civil society activists since the beginning of 2013 on broad, catch-all charges, such as "trying to distort the reputation of the kingdom" or "breaking allegiance with the ruler." Amnesty International told the council that Saudi Arabia implemented "none of the central recommendations" made in the 2009 review, including to guarantee the rights of women. A growing human rights movement in recent years, Amnesty said, has been met with "harsh repressive measures such as arbitrary arrests, detentions without charge or trial, unfair trials and travel bans."
This is a sorry and shameful record. Perhaps the women who dared steer their own cars can do it more often and drive Saudi Arabia toward modernity.