quinta-feira, 27 de setembro de 2007

In Saudi Arabia, Debate on Women’s Right to Drive

The New York Times

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates Sept. 27 — In a recent episode of Saudi Arabia’s most popular television show airing during Ramadan this month, a Saudi man of the future is seen sitting in his house as his daughter pulls into the driveway, her kids piled into the back of the car.

“Where have you been?” the father asks.

“The kids were bored, so I took them to the movies,” she replies, matter-of-factly, as she gets out of the driver’s seat.

In Saudi Arabia, where women are forbidden from driving — and, by the way, where there are no movie theaters, either — the skit portends something of a revolution. From a taboo about which there could be no open discussion, a woman’s right to drive is developing into a topic of growing and lively debate in Saudi Arabia.

Coming on top of other recent changes — women may now travel abroad without male accompaniment (though they still require male permission), earn graduate degrees in law and engineering, seek divorce and own their own companies — the driving discussion is noteworthy. Whether it signals that women will actually be driving soon or merely talking about it openly remains to be seen.

“We are telling everyone this is coming, whether today or tomorrow,” said Abdallah Samhan, the producer, writer and host of “Tash Ma Tash,” a variety comedy show that airs during the month of Ramadan and tackles controversial social issues in Saudi Arabia. Women have been seen driving in other episodes of the show as well, sending what Mr. Samhan says is a deliberate message.

“A woman cannot be separated from the society and women will be driving, whether it’s now or 50 years from now,” he said. “And there will be a time we will accept it, so now is the time to get prepared for that.”

In another popular Saudi show, “Amsha Bint Amash,” a woman who loses her father and is forced to move to the city masquerades as a man to get work as a taxi driver.

There is more. Saudi newspapers have begun writing about the implications and acceptability of women driving. The Saudi Human Rights Council, a government-backed advocacy organization, has begun researching the potential effects of women driving on families and Saudi society.

And most recently, a group of Saudi women have led an ambitious petition drive asking the king to repeal the ban, placing the issue at the heart of a discussion about modernity and Saudi Arabia’s place in the world. And unlike the last such petition in 1990, the government seems mildly receptive rather than hostile.

“You get the feeling that they are preparing the population for this issue,” said Wajeha al-Huweidar, 45, one of the organizers. “It is just like the decision to allow women education. They resisted it, but now it’s a reality.”

On Sunday, Ms. Huweidar and some 1,100 other women sent the petition to King Abdullah, demanding that women be given the right to drive, citing the lack of any religious reasoning against it.

Some Saudi officials and clerics agree with the women that Islam does not forbid women from driving. In the past, Saudi women were able to move freely on camel and horseback, and Bedouin women in the desert openly drive pickup trucks far from the public eye. Two years ago, Ahmed al Zulfa, a member of the shura consultative council, suggested that the council consider allowing women to drive, causing an uproar.

Clerics and religious conservatives maintain that allowing women to drive would open Saudi society to untold corruption. Women alone in cars, they say, would be more open to abuse, would become wayward, and would get into big trouble if stopped by police or involved in an accident. The net result would be an erosion of social mores.

“Our parents had the right of movement; our grandparents had it too,” Ms. Huweidar said, speaking by telephone from Dammam. “But we ladies of the cities lost the old ways and got nothing in their place.”

In 1990, a group of prominent Saudi women, taking advantage of the presence of Western reporters and camera crews in the country to cover the buildup to the first Gulf War, defied the ban by driving cars down a boulevard in Riyadh. Several of the women were jailed briefly; many lost high positions in schools and universities, and some left the country for a while afterward. More...

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