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Saudi ban drives women to rebel
Saudi Arabian women are heading for a collision with the country's ultra-conservative religious establishment over a 17-year-old official ban that prevents them from driving vehicles.
A group called the League of Demanders of Women's Right to Drive Cars in Saudi Arabia will present a petition to King Abdullah this week, asking him to "return that which has been stolen from women: the right to free movement through the use of cars, which are the means of transportation today."
The women add: "This is a right that was enjoyed by our mothers and grandmothers in complete freedom."
The exceptionally bold language in a country that uses draconian laws against even the mildest dissent indicates growing self-confidence among Saudi women reformers as the economy slowly opens up to outside influences.
Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that forbids women from driving. But the ban is relatively modern, a fact the women are hoping to exploit. It was introduced in 1990 after a group of women drove a convoy of cars to protest against a "cultural" prohibition against women drivers. The result was disastrous for them. The Council of Grand Ulamas (religious scholars), the highest religious authority in the country, issued a fatwa (religious decree) stipulating that women driving was against the rules of Islam.
The religious establishment has come out in force in favour of the ban. A statement signed by more than 100 clerics, judges, university teachers, heads of the Saudi religious police and teachers at the Grand Mosque in Mecca and the Prophet's Mosque in Medina, the two holiest sites in Islam, declares that no Islamic scholar or "good figure in society" has called for women to drive.
Some of those who signed claim that women driving would create greater economic burdens because families would need to have more than one car, and they would have to buy new cars regularly because "women are known to like everything new".
A typical Saudi orthodox religious view is that of Dr Mohammed Al-Farraj, a prominent cleric and orator at Al-Rawdah mosque in Riyadh, who opposes any political or social reforms not based purely on Islamic law.
He believes that any freedoms granted to women, including the right to drive, will open the door to "gender mixing", which is a source of "great vice". He advised fathers not to be lax in allowing their wives or daughters to go out as this will lead to "serious evils" because they will "beautify themselves, take off their hijabs and be indecent".
Al-Farraj reserves particular venom for a popular TV programme, Tash ma Tash, which manages to dodge the official censorship. One sketch which attracted his anger lampooned the driving ban with a sketch on whether women should be allowed to ride donkeys, and if so whether they should have to be female ones. He declared that the actors were apostates who should be punished by death.
The Shoura Council, the nearest thing to a parliament in Saudi Arabia, has decided the topic is too hot to handle, announcing it was not the right body to discuss the issue because of the fatwa.
Wajeha Al-Huwaider is not impressed. She attacks discriminatory laws which "classify women as having less sense, detract from their importance, cast doubts about their abilities, let them be beaten and divorced, let them be imprisoned within four walls, allow them to be treated as their husbands see fit, let them be bought and sold by legal agreement, and, when the women fail and violate religious law they welcome their barbaric killing." She adds: "Dogs and cats in the developed world have more rights." It's all in the Koran, and dogs don't do so well in that book either.