Getting behind the wheel in Saudi Arabia

A news item that appeared on social media raged through the internet and went viral in less than eight hours.

The topic? Saudi women driving. And the news item? It was reported that the Saudi Shura Council had tabled a resolution to forward to the Council of Ministers, seeking approval to allow women to drive in the country. The news was attributed to the Council President, Dr Shaikh Abdullah Al Shaikh, and it appeared to be genuine.

Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that apparently forbids by law women getting behind the wheels, and when such a news surfaced, it didn’t take long for it to spread like wildfire. In many tweets, Saudis lauded the decision. Said one such tweet: “Finally, the Shura Council brings us in equal footing with the rest of the world.”

Another exclaimed: “The last shackles against women in this country have been broken. Whoopee, let reality take hold.” A female who complained that the ban caused her considerable inconvenience tweeted: “Thank God, no more drivers with their outrageous financial demands. I will get myself to work by myself.” Among the many messages, there was very little in opposition to this latest development.

But within 24 hours, the Shura Council categorically denied plans to endorse a legislation that would allow women to drive.

Shura Council official spokesman Dr Mohammad Al Muhanna made a statement, refuting allegations being circulated on social media websites. “Shura Council president Dr Shaikh Abdullah Bin Mohammad Bin Ebrahim Al Shaikh did not make any press statements in this regard,” the spokesman said, voicing dismay over the baseless claims.

This debate over letting women drive has been going on for many years. More recently, influential personalities have voiced their support to let women drive. A few months ago, Prince Al Waleed Bin Talal, one of the most influential Arabs in the region, had jumped into the fray by tweeting: “Stop the debate: Time for women to drive”.

The Prince, known for his intense commitment to empowering the kingdom’s women, said that “Preventing a woman from driving a car is today an issue of rights similar to the one that forbade her from receiving an education or having an independent identity. They are all unjust acts by a traditional society, far more restrictive than what is lawfully allowed by the precepts of religion. Having women drive has become an urgent social demand predicated upon current economic circumstances.”

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