Ladies, no test spin for you

Saudi women can buy and sell cars -- they just can't drive them.

By Tracy Clark-Flory
Published December 4, 2006 7:21PM (EST)

Here's an interesting development: An all-women auto showroom has opened in Saudi Arabia, to allow female buyers to more comfortably shop for cars. But of course, it's illegal for Saudi women to drive, so test drives are out. The saleswomen and their customers can talk mileage, horsepower and safety features -- they just can't put the key in the ignition.

A Saudi woman can own a car -- interestingly, almost half of cars in the country belong to women -- and hire a male driver. But she's completely banned from driving. The owners of the new all-women showroom even asked that the dealership's name be omitted from Sunday's Associated Press article for fear of the conservative response. The national debate over women's automotive rights is dominated by conservative fury, and anything that facilitates women buying cars -- even in private -- is seen as dangerously subversive. Even saleswoman Widad Merdad, who opened the women's auto showroom, told the AP, "I don't support women driving even if a permission is given for them to do so, because the society is not prepared for such a step."

The notion of women behind the wheel is seen as a threat to Saudi Arabia's heavily sex-segregated society. In a letter to the opinion page of Saudi newspaper Al-Watan, Ruqiya al-Duwaighry, a woman, argued that driving "strips woman of their femininity" and could "subject her to give up the veil or mix with strange men, such as workers at gas stations or security men at checkpoints ... Women, by nature, cannot cope with such hard work." (Plus, as the BBC reported last year, we're pretty bad drivers.)

Not too surprisingly, the issue of women's right to drive has become a pet issue for the country's conservatives. And while we don't agree that women drivers mean the end of the world as we know it, it's true that an expansion of rights can lead to a desire for more freedoms. If Saudi women could drive, who's to say they wouldn't call for adequate legal protection for rape victims, or otherwise attack their country's balance of power?

Tracy Clark-Flory

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