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Women in Saudi Arabia hire a taxi. Saudi Arabia is the ... Women in Saudi Arabia hire a taxi. Saudi Arabia is the only country where women are not allowed to drive (AP).
When Farha was a young girl, about seven years old, her mother told her something that rocked her world: She said women could drive.

For Farha, a 24-year-old writer who has spent her entire life in Saudi Arabia, this was akin to a Western child learning the truth about Santa Claus. She'd only ever seen men behind the wheel in her country, where women are not permitted to drive. The revelation was slightly scandalous, a little bit funny, and totally paradigm-shifting.

It took another two years for Farha (who didn't want to be identified with her last name due to the sensitivity of the issue in her home country) to decide she would, one day, learn how to drive a car. And, for good measure, she'd learn how to ride a bike. Two modes of transportation that have been banned to women and girls for most of Farha's lifetime.

On Oct. 26, women in Saudi Arabia will engage in the third protest against the female driving ban by getting behind the wheel anyway. The protest won't be widely attended, because the vast majority of women in Saudi Arabia don't know how to drive. There are no driving schools in the Kingdom that cater to females, and state agencies will not issue a driver's license to a woman.

"Since there is no justification for the Saudi government to prohibit adult women citizens who are capable of driving cars from doing so, we urge the state to provide appropriate means for women seeking insurance of permits and licenses to apply and obtain them," a petition at the protestor's web site reads. The web site has been blocked within Saudi Arabia, yet there are still a thousand or so names on the petition. The few women who are adept behind the wheel learned while living overseas, often in the U.S., Canada, or nearby Bahrain or Dubai.

In urban areas, women are chauffeured around by male relatives or paid drivers, or they pay for taxis. In rural areas, the driving ban generally isn't enforced, and more women drive out of necessity. One woman who was recently videotaped disobeying the ban got support from her fellow (male) drivers, who passed by and gave her the thumbs up, a sign that society may be more willing to accept an eventual change.



Learning to drive

Farha tackled the task of learning to drive first by reading about the process. She edited a story on how to drive for her high school newspaper, and from that she felt she learned quite a bit. Then her father spent some time talking to her about how cars work, and the theoretical aspects of driving. He took her out for a few hours over the course of a few days, letting her drive around their neighborhood in the coastal city of Jeddah. But she never ventured onto the main roads.

She also learned the basics of riding a bicycle, but doesn't consider herself adept at either skill. When the ban is lifted, she said she'll sign up for classes at a real driving school.

"I always thought this ban would go away when I was 18," she told AOL Autos. We connected with her through a publication where Farha wrote, under a pseudonym, about the driving ban. "And I'm still hoping it will be lifted when I am 26."

"I always thought this ban would go away when I was 18," Farha said. "And I'm still hoping it will be lifted when I am 26."

Not driving makes life's everyday movements difficult. Sidewalks aren't available, so walking isn't realistic. Farha's father has mostly been responsible for driving her and her mother around, but five months ago he got into an accident and broke his leg. He is currently unable to drive. Farha feels the burden of her father's injury. If she could drive, she said, she could bring him to doctor's appointments and help him get out of the house. Instead, the family is home-bound unless they pay someone to bring them places.

Farha has hired a part-time driver to take her to and from work. It costs about 2,000 to 3,000 Saudi riyals (or around $530 to $800) a month for a driver. That's about the same amount that women make earning minimum wage in Saudi Arabia, prompting many women to just stay home.

"A lot of women don't feel the incentive to work and hire a driver," she said. "It doesn't make any economic sense."

Some women opt for the public bus system, but that makes women from conservative families feel nervous because it exposes them to strange men – the exact problem the country is trying to avoid by banning women drivers. Taxis run the same problem, putting females into cars with strange men. "It doesn't make sense," Farha said.

Farha is considering signing up for a karate class, but she'll have to pay her driver for more hours or take a taxi to the classes. On top of the class fees, the price of getting to and from karate starts to seem like a silly amount of money, she said.

And she worries she's spending too much money on herself. She could spend 30 riyals on a taxi each way, or she could donate that money to a family in need. Or spend that money sending school supplies to girls in other countries.

"It's a difficult decision to make every time," she said.

One unintended consequence of the rule strikes Farha as incredibly unsafe: Women often let their 13-year-old sons drive them around when they are out of other options. Farha's observation was backed up by a U.S. intelligence research note made public by Wikileaks, which noted that these young drivers sometimes get into very serious accidents.

Weird, long history

Oddly enough, there isn't any actual law in Saudi Arabia banning women from driving. In 1991, the late Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheik Abdulaziz bin Baz issued a fatwa prohibiting women from driving. A fatwa is different from a government law, in that only followers of the religious leader who issues the fatwa are obliged to follow that law. But given the intertwined nature of Saudi Arabia's government and its religious leaders, the fatwa took hold. The government agency in charge of issuing driver's licenses will not issue one to a woman. Saudi Arabia's court system relies heavily on fatwas from the Grand Mufti.

So, in essence, the religious order became a rule that everyone follows, even though it's not enforced by the Saudi government. The government just makes it impossible for women to get drivers licenses, and if they catch women driving, they make them sign a pledge promising they won't do it again.

Abdulaziz bin Baz said at the time that the ban would protect women, because allowing women to drive would put them out in society alone, leaving them to mix with men. If women were stranded by the side of the road due to a flat tire or car problem, they could end up being assaulted or raped by a man who came to help them, argue critics who still uphold the ban.

A reporter for the Christian Science Monitor recalled a 2012 conversation with a man in Saudi Arabia about what would happen if the ban was lifted. "What would happen if a woman got in a car accident, he asked? Then she would be forced to deal with the male driver of the other car, a stranger, with no oversight – a problematic situation in a country where male guardianship of women is deeply entrenched."

Just last week, a Saudi cleric came under fire for claiming women were damaging their pelvises and causing birth defects by driving. Sheikh Saleh bin Saad al-Lohaidan argued women should put reason ahead of their hearts, because it "could have negative physiological impacts as functional and physiological medical studies show that it automatically affects the ovaries and pushes the pelvis upward."

Saudi society is slowly inching toward more equality for women. Just this week, four women became attorneys. Earlier this year, women were allowed to work in retail establishments that sell underwear and bras, taking away the embarrassment for women who'd previously had to purchase these items from male salespeople.

Since around 2006, the Saudi government has been indicating it would consider lifting the driving ban if society deems it acceptable for women to drive. Diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks showed the U.S. government has been paying attention to this issue, and putting some pressure on the Saudis to change their ways.

Will of the people?

But it's clear the Saudi government won't make any controversial moves: "This has to do with the will of Saudi society," said Saudi Justice Minister Muhammad Al-Issa in a TV interview in April, according to a translation by the non-profit group MEMRI. "If Saudi society, given its culture, wants women to drive, it's fine. But if society has any reservation for whatever reason, that's fine too."

Farha said she's holding out hope that the rules will change, as soon as possible. But the change will depend greatly on men's attitudes.

"More men certainly support it now, but ... they have their concerns," she said. And "some are outright hostile to the idea."

When she does get her license, Farha said she'd like to try driving a sports car. It doesn't matter what kind, she just would like to try driving something fun. But she'd rather be able to walk or bike to work, even if she could drive.

"Cars feel suffocating inside," she said. "But the whole idea is to lift this difficulty for women. I hope it happens soon."

In sharing this story, and others, with our readers we hope you are inspired to Raise Your Hand for girls' education, helping us spread the word on this crucial effort.






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  • 67 Comments
      • 1 Year Ago
      Women drive a car - man use camel - one hump camel 'Taxi ", two hump camel - limousine. M
      belldn3
      • 1 Year Ago
      Good for her, but she's playing with fire. Do what you gotta do.
      Velocity105
      • 1 Year Ago
      They're not being banned from driving. They're being subjugated, oppressed, prevented from "unlawful contact" and disappearing in a car to who knows where, where they can't be watched, chastised, threatened and harassed. Someday women will walk without head-to-toe garments there, drive cars and have most of the freedoms women in the rest of the world will have. And all this is from twisted, blind obedience to a religion that represses it's members and forces them to worship a non-existent entity.
      jktejas
      • 1 Year Ago
      I wish them all the best and sincerely hope that gathering to protest or getting behind the wheel of a car does not get any of them a bullet in the head.
      madlyfem
      • 1 Year Ago
      The thing that began making women free was the bicycle. For the first time, she was able to go where she wanted to do what she wanted to do without needing the help of anyone else. That was not necessarily true with a horse, depending on where she lived, where the horse and buggy was kept, and her class status. Not true of the bicycle. It was open to all women. If women in Saudi Arabia can get permission to ride one, that will free her more than a car. No likelihood of getting into an accident with men. I hope this works.
        Vi
        • 1 Year Ago
        @madlyfem
        Except for one big drawback... Try riding a bicycle wearing one of those long Burkas... And if any leg was shown, the poor woman might get beaten or stoned... I am just so thankful I was born an American. ~
      SHIRLEY
      • 1 Year Ago
      One day the Women of the world will ban together in each Country and demand equal treatment or else. Here we are in the 21 Century and Women are still treated in many places like they are a pieace of property or treated like a slave might be treated. I am a man and is totally ashame for this type of treatment by men and other Countries Governments that allow this to take place. Problem here is the people that does this has peanuts for brains. This is nothing for then being afraid of having equal rights. Be equal and educated is very important for human life to continue. Has anybody been paying attention all the uneducated wants to do is kill other people and have total control of others that don't beleive like they do. Very low self esteen problem for them.
        • 1 Year Ago
        @SHIRLEY
        It's no different here. Here women get paid less then men for doing the same jobs. Maybe when people stop being stupid and stop voting Republicans into office, maybe things will change.
      Frank S. Pedigo
      • 1 Year Ago
      I hope Ted Cruz dosent see this story . I can just see him now trying to pass a law against women driving because it is a form of birth control and against his god`s will .
      topjimi1
      • 1 Year Ago
      Everyone says Muslims are ok and saudi arabia... keep your issues there with you. America has our own issues to deal with.
      • 1 Year Ago
      People over there want to keep their women in check, the goverment sends all men a copy of girls gone wild and it scares them that their women may act like americans, and european chicks, that would scare anybody.
      • 1 Year Ago
      I don't think they have a word in there vocabulary for equal or rights the women are being treated like their less then human not even kids are so restricted what is the deal their fighting for rights that is a basic part of adulthood seems to me the men just make up the laws as they go along anything they want to add to the laws they just make up something to suit themselves
      billcdaly
      • 1 Year Ago
      When I see discrimination like this, other than oil how do we justify them being an ally?
      carnut122
      • 1 Year Ago
      Just let them drive....at least they won't be putting on make-up as the drive.
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