This commentary was published in Asharq al-Awsat on 29/05/2011
Saudi Arabian society, for the most part, is a young one, whilst the majority of Saudi Arabians live in one of Saudi's three major cities (Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam). Saudi Arabians are also among the most internet literate people in the Arab world, with modern means of communication being extremely popular in the country. In addition to this, more than 1,000 Saudi Arabian students study abroad, most of whom in the US.
Saudi Arabia is a geographically diverse country, with a similarly diverse and multi-cultured society, in the same manner as any large, rich, and affluent nation.
During times of major social transformation and change, eyes are always drawn to the condition and role of women in society. This is what happened in Saudi Arabia when the state, during the reign of King Saud, decided to open state-run schools for girls. King Faisal also showed great resolve with regards to following this route [opening girls' schools], despite the protest campaigns that were launched by religious preachers. These preachers went so far as to dispatch a number of delegations to try to talk the ruler out of this decision. Indeed the first girls' schools in Saudi Arabia were, in some places, opened under the protection of military forces [due to the religious campaign opposing such schools].
We saw speeches, instigation and social mobilization calling for girls to be given the right to a modern education; however despite all of the above, this was something that had to be forcibly established. Whoever wanted to enroll their daughter in school was free to do so, and whoever didn't want to was not forced to, and so that is what happened. We have now reached the stage which saw Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz, opening the Princess Noura Bint Abdulrahman University for Girls, just a few days ago. This is a huge academic institute, which will be capable of graduating 60,000 female students each year.
We have arrived at a great time for women's education in Saudi Arabia, and we are proud to have a number of Saudi female luminaries such as scientist Dr. Hayat Sindi, researcher Dr. Ghada al-Mutairi, well-known political figure Thuraya Obeid, and scientist Dr. Khawla al-Kuraya, among many others, both inside the country and abroad.
Look at where we were when girls' schools in Saudi Arabia first opened, and how far we have come!
If we listened to the demands of those who were afraid and against this, back then, what would our fate have been today? Would we have scientists like Dr. al-Kuraya, Dr. al-Mutairi and Dr. Sindi?
The issue of women's right to drive is exactly the same; there are always those who reject anything new. This is a well-known custom in conservative societies, whether this is Saudi Arabia or elsewhere. The issue of women's right to drive has gradually been turned into a slinging match between one [social] current that views this as a matter of life and death, and another that believes that the ban on women driving represents Saudi Arabian women being denied their natural rights, particularly as all other Muslim women, including those in Gulf states, enjoy this right. The entire issue has been completely politicized, which is something that Asharq Al-Awsat editor-in-chief Tariq Alhomayed put forward in his article [Saudi Arabia: Don't politicize the issue of women driving, 26/05/2011].
This truly is an issue that is being given far more weight than it deserves, and has become an issue that the international media is using to criticize the humanitarian record of the country as a whole. I believe that the time has come to settle this issue for good, and turn over the page, and move away from this issue which has harmed all concerned parties. The issue is one of traditions, and a delay in the administrative decision [on the issue of women driving]; this is a state of affairs that lasted for so long that the issue of women driving began to be viewed as something untouchable. This is when such traditions become a problem, namely when everybody is afraid to try and change them.
Saudi women are part of the fabric of society and culture. Women driving will not change their culture or morals. Whoever has reservations can discuss these, and we will hopefully find logical solutions. However banning something for the sake of banning it is not a solution, but rather a short-term sedative.