Today, Saturday 26 October 2013, is a big day of protest in Saudi Arabia – women are taking to the roads, behind the wheel of a car.
Saudi Arabia has a ban on women driving. Previous women who have tried to overturn this have faced jail, confiscation of passports and job losses.
Why can’t women drive? All sorts of crazy reasons have been put forward, including this gem:
Sheikh Saleh bin Saad al-Lohaidan, a judicial adviser to an association of Gulf psychologists, said women aiming to overturn the ban on driving should put “reason ahead of their hearts, emotions and passions”.
“If a woman drives a car, not out of pure necessity, that could have negative physiological impacts as functional and physiological medical studies show that it automatically affects the ovaries and pushes the pelvis upwards,” he said. “That is why we find those who regularly drive have children with clinical problems of varying degrees.”
The consequences of not driving mean that women can be prisoners at home, relying on the availability and willingness of male relatives to ferry them round, or the availability of a driver. The temperature in Saudi Arabia can rise to above 50C, making it impossible to get anywhere by walking, even if a male companion can be found.
But you can see why the clerics are worried about the possibility of women driving. Mobility is fundamental for freedom. Around 150 clerics and religious scholars protested outside a royal palace this week, trying to get the day of action stopped. The current government is moderately reform-minded – in Saudi terms – and there are encouraging signs that the driving protest might go ahead without mass jailings.
Saudi jail is not a great place to be. The women of Saudi Arabia are taking a genuine risk by doing this. And, should they succeed, it’s possible they might face private, as well as public, backlash.
But civil rights fights are always worth it in the end, not least for the pride it will give their daughters and grand daughters.
So, best of luck, and we’ll be watching.