By Hassan M. Fattah and Rasheed Abou-AlsamhThe New York Times
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates, Sept. 27 — In a recent episode of Saudi Arabia’s most popular television show, broadcast during Ramadan this month, a Saudi man of the future is seen sitting in his house as his daughter pulls into the driveway, her children 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.
The scene may appear mundane, but in Saudi Arabia, where women are forbidden to drive — 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 becoming a topic of growing and lively debate in Saudi Arabia.
Coming after other recent changes — women may now travel abroad without male accompaniment (though male permission is still required), 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 al-Sadhan, producer, writer and host of “Tash Ma Tash” (“No Big Deal”), a variety comedy show that is broadcast during Ramadan and tackles controversial social issues in Saudi Arabia. Other episodes have also shown women driving in what Mr. Sadhan says is a deliberate message. “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” (“Amsha, Daughter of Amash”), a woman who loses her father is forced to move to the city, where she masquerades as a man to become a taxi driver.
Saudi newspapers have begun writing about the implications and acceptability of having women drive. The Saudi National Human Rights Association has begun researching the effect of women’s driving on families and Saudi society, activists said.
A group of Saudi women have led a petition drive asking the king to repeal the ban on driving by women, placing the issue at the heart of a discussion about modernity and Saudi Arabia’s place in the world. And the government, which was hostile toward the last such petition in 1990, now seems mildly receptive.
“You get the feeling that they are preparing the population for this issue,” said Wajeha al- Huwaider, 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. Huwaider and some 1,100 other women sent the petition to King Abdullah.
Some Saudi officials and religious men agree with the women that Islam does not forbid women to drive. 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.
Clerics and religious conservatives maintain that allowing women to drive would open Saudi society to untold corruption. Women alone in a car, they say, would be more open to abuse, to going wayward, and to getting into trouble if they had an accident or were stopped by the police. The net result would be an erosion of social mores, they say.
In 1990, a group of prominent Saudi women seized on the presence of Western news media covering the first Persian Gulf war, boarded cars and drove through a Riyadh boulevard. Several of the women were jailed briefly; many lost high positions in schools and universities, and others were forced to leave the country for some time.
This time, however, the women are being given wide latitude to make their case, Ms. Huwaider said. She believes that this is because the case is being made in pragmatic social and economic terms, not purely as a matter of women’s rights.
Because of the rising cost of living in Saudi Arabia, women have been entering the work force in large numbers. That in turn has given them new economic clout in the family and greater leverage.
Ebtihal Mubarak, another organizer of the petition drive, who is an editor at Arab News, an English-language daily newspaper, said the cost of a driver had begun to impinge on Saudi families. “Most middle-class people can’t afford drivers anymore,” she said.
Saudi women say the seeming momentum behind the issue is fueled in part by what they can now see and read about the freedoms of women abroad on satellite television and the Internet. They also feel they have become more sophisticated in dealing with the Saudi system.
“This is more organized and is a real campaign,” said Khalid Al-Dakhil, professor of political sociology at King Saud University in Riyadh. “They have been on the Net, sending out e-mails.”
Still, few expect any change to come soon. Ms. Huwaider said the group had so far received no reply from the palace to the petition. Even women’s rights advocates said lifting ban would mean much preparation and public education, for women and men.
“Fifty years ago, we rejected the mail and then we advanced,” said Mr. Sadhan, the television producer. “We refused radio, only to accept it, and then rejected TV, and only to accept that, too. We will accept women driving some day all the same, and the environment has to be prepared for it.”
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