Why Saudi Arabia can’t ban women from driving forever

There’s something extraordinary happening in Saudi Arabia right now. I should know — you see, I was born there, lived there half my life, speak the language and understand the customs. Lately, I’m both amazed at and humbled by what I’m seeing: Extremely brave Saudi women, more driven than ever to change their society, despite the sad fact that they still aren’t allowed to drive.

And while it’s true there’s no formal law that bans females from getting behind the wheel in the ultra-conservative kingdom, it is also by no means a stretch to say they are, indeed, prohibited from doing so. Unfortunately, that’s just the way it’s always been in a society where religious edicts are often interpreted to mean it is illegal for women to drive.

I’ve reported on this subject for years and must admit, it’s a personal one for me. Some of my earliest memories entail trying to figure out why my American mother would always drive me around Oklahoma City, where we spent our summers, but could never take me around Jeddah, where we lived the rest of the year.

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Ya Libnan was originally created to capture the historic events that erupted as a result of the assassination of the former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri. The tragic Valentines Day murder gave birth to the Cedar Revolution.

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Saudi women emerging

published 1-20-2013

A week ago, Saudi Arabia saw something that people in the kingdom often talk about but rarely witness — a potentially important political reform.

King Abdullah announced Jan. 11 that 30 women would join the kingdom’s Shura Council, a consultative body of 150 persons, and that women henceforth would hold 20 percent of the seats. Skeptics cautioned that it’s a symbolic move, since this is an advisory group that doesn’t actually enact any legislation. But it’s a powerful symbol, according to men and women here.

When Abdullah first signaled his plan to name women to the council, a Saudi cleric said it would be “haram,” or forbidden under Islam. The king went ahead and announced the 30 appointees, saying that he had consulted the Senior Ulema Council, the religious body whose approval is one of the pillars of the Saudi monarchy.

A Westerner here told me that, last weekend, several dozen conservative Saudis gathered near Abdullah’s palace to complain, but he wouldn’t see them.

It’s understandable why conservatives would be upset: If Saudi women are deemed worthy of joining the body that advises the king on sensitive matters, it’s harder to justify the many limits on their rights.

I met here last week with Hayat Sindi, a scientist who is one of the newly appointed Shura members. She took her doctorate in biotechnology from Cambridge in 2001, and in the years since she has been a visiting scholar at Harvard, launched two companies and helped run a third.

“I feel the solution for the Middle East is based on women and youth,” she says. Listening to her story of insistent, determined accomplishment, it’s hard to disagree.

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