Back-seat drivers

Observations on the road

In the week that Saudi women heard that, yet again, they would remain banned from driving cars within the Kingdom, a women-only motor show opened in the capital Riyadh.

The exhibition has been organised by the finance company Al-Amthal, an international arm of the Ford Motor Credit Company, and the aim is to sell cars to professional women. After all, there is no reason why a woman shouldn't own a car. She just can't sit behind the steering wheel.

Strict rules regarding contact between men and women mean that the exhibition is staffed entirely by women. Those who have been campaigning for years for the right to drive (rather than rely on a male relative or chauffeur to drive them around), will have to content themselves with choosing the colour of their vehicles, the upholstery and an array of gadgets, from CD players to air-con, that can be operated by a back-seat passenger. But colour charts specifically chosen with women in mind are unlikely to be much consolation to the Saudi women who have once again seen their hope of being in the driving seat extinguished by an announcement from a Saudi minister.

Explaining the refusal to lift the prohibition to al-Anbaa, an Arabic newspaper, the interior minister Prince Nayef said: "Women have the right to own a car or anything else. But driving a car in our desert regions, where distances are large between one district and another, would expose women's lives to danger, and this we cannot accept."

There are a few dissenting male voices, but those who speak out are taking a risk. Last year, Mohammad al-Zulfa, a member of the Shura Council, a consultative religious body of 150 members chosen by the king, called for a gradual lifting of the ban on women drivers, a suggestion which almost cost him his job. "It was as if I was calling for women to take their clothes off in the street," he told Reuters.

The ban on women drivers in Saudi Arabia was made in 1990 in a fatwa issued by the Council of Senior Ulama (a government body of religious scholars). Saudi conservatives object to women driving because they fear it will enable them to mix with men outside the family, and encourage young people to date.

The ban is strictly enforced in cities and on the major roads but in rural areas the regulation is reported to be frequently flouted.

Back at the exhibition, the organisers hope the venture will enable women to choose their cars totally independently of their fathers, husbands or brothers and say that women from the teaching and medical professions have shown particular interest in viewing the cars.

Independence behind the steering wheel, however, is going to take a little longer.

This article first appeared in the 27 November 2006 issue of the New Statesman, The real Afghan war