The fact that women in Saudi Arabia aren't allowed to drive is hardly news, but it's still shocking to read about what a hard rule it is to change. As the New York Times reports, a recent episode of Saudi Arabia's most popular television show caused a stir when it depicted a Saudi "man of the future" greeting his wife as she comes home with the kids after driving them to a movie. (As the Times notes, this is an unusual scene for Saudi Arabia not just because it shows a woman behind the wheel but because in Saudi Arabia, there are no movie theaters to begin with.)
The episode was (probably coincidentally) well timed with a petition presented to the Saudi government by the League of Demanders of Women's Right to Drive Cars in Saudi Arabia, which delivered a letter to King Abdullah this past Sunday signed by over 1,000 people demanding that women be allowed to drive. Unlike in 1990, when a similar petition was presented, the Times reports, "the government seems mildly receptive rather than hostile."
Why would its reaction have changed? The shift is probably partially due to increased exposure, over the past 17 years, to the idea of female drivers -- not to mention wider distribution, via satellite television and the Internet, of images of women in other countries driving cars. But part of it, says the Times, is also purely economic. More Saudi women work today than in 1990, which means that they need transportation to and from their offices. Pragmatically speaking, hiring a driver is expensive. For many middle-class Saudi Arabians, it makes far better economic sense to simply allow a woman to drive herself to work.
It's an interesting development. On the one hand, I think it's great that women are getting closer to winning the right to get behind the wheel. On the other hand, allowing them to drive simply for economic reasons sidesteps the bigger issue of why the hell you'd forbid women to drive in the first place. As the Times explains, opponents believe that granting women the right to drive would "open Saudi society to untold corruption" and would result in "an erosion of social mores." To which I say, perhaps some mores deserve to be eroded. (Apartheid, anyone?) And while I hope that women win the right to drive by whatever means it takes, I also hope that Saudi Arabia eventually accepts the idea that women should be granted drivers' licenses because they're people, not just because it makes economic sense.