Countries Where Women Can't Drive

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The extent to which laws and customs differ across countries and societies laws are most often noticeable in the area of gender and family. While driving is something that all women in Western countries and many other places take for granted – and indeed cannot do without – there are certain parts of the world where women are denied this fundamental resource of independence. Here are some of the countries where women, even in the twentieth century, cannot drive – whether by law or by custom.

Saudi Arabia

Among the countries where the opposition to women’s driving has been in news in recent times is Saudi Arabia. In keeping with a deeply Islamic society Saudi Arabia prohibits women the right to get behind the steering wheel. Even though technically it is not illegal for women to drive in the country1, a religious edict, or fatwa, issued in the early '90s, banned the practice. A statement from the Ministry of Interior backed up the decree.  
However in the past few years, some voices of dissent have been heard against the ban on driving by women. Most notable among them is that of journalist and women’s right activist, Manal al-Sharif, 33. In June 2011, Sharif along with Najla Hariri, 45, and about hundred women took part in the first demonstration organized by underground civil disobedience campaigns Women2Drive and I Will Drive My Own Car. Many were arrested and jailed. One woman's sentence of 10 lashes was revoked only after the king intervened. It was the largest mass action since November 1990, when 47 Saudi women were arrested after demonstrating in cars.

In June 2012 again Sharif and Hariri called upon women with international driving licenses to flout the ban. At the same time in a deeply Islamic society, they have to make sure they do it respectfully, wearing the legally required full Islamic dress and displaying a picture of the king.

However the kingdom’s conservative forces are in no mood to relent. Saudi Arabia's powerful religious body, the Shura Council, has widely publicized an academic study that claims allowing women to drive would lead to higher rates of divorce, prostitution and drug abuse. A group of Saudi women has even started a campaign called My Guardian Knows What is Best for Me2 which opposes calls for a more liberal approach to women's rights, including women driving.



The prohibition against driving is part of widespread and deeply entrenched gender discrimination where women have been traditionally given a raw deal. Women in Saudi Arabia can't get married, leave the country, go to school or open bank accounts without permission from a male guardian, who usually is the father or husband. Much of public life is segregated by gender. Saudi Arabia has come under attack for not allowing women athletes to participate in the London Olympics, although the governing Olympic body, the IOC, has refused calls to impose sanctions.

In the past, King Abdullah, has been quoted as saying "the day will come" when women are allowed to drive. Since last year's campaign, he has promised to allow women to vote and to stand in certain elections by 2015. But most reformers and activists remain skeptical about seeing real change any time soon.

Afghanistan

Yet another country where the prohibition against driving by women is more of a cultural and religious edict rather than legal ban is Afghanistan. In this country the main source of opposition against women drivers was the harshly repressive Taliban which was responsible of committing widespread horrors against women in the name of upholding female purity and family honor. Since the removal of the Taliban and their austere rule a decade ago, Women have regained limited rights such as education, voting, work and part of this was sitting behind the steering wheel. In fact the end of the cruel Taliban regime encouraged women like Shakila Naderi to learn driving and now she is the country’s only female driving instructor. Kabul issued a record 312 driving licences to women last year, according to the traffic department3; even Herat in the west and Mazar-e-Sharif in the north gave out 64 and 48 respectively to women taught mainly by other women but also by some men.

But largely women continue to be hesitant to take up driving. They are not only fearful of the ultra-conservative Taliban biding its time before it seizes control of the country again but also dampened by intolerant patriarchal attitudes of normal Afghani men. Male drivers often taunt women behind the wheel and try to chase their cars off the road, sometimes causing the women drivers to swerve dangerously. Finally there is the opposition from one’s family who discourage girls to learn driving for fear of leaving them vulnerable to male humiliation and Taliban punishment.

The prevalent view is that Islamic countries which follow Sharia all prohibit their women citizens from driving a car. However the reality is that many Middle Eastern countries like Kuwait and UAE, despite not being democracies allow both men and women to drive. Again African countries like Sudan and Morocco do not prohibit women driving cars by law but cultural and religious restrictions make it an unfamiliar sight. However strongly Islamic countries like Iran and Iraq have allowed women to drive since many decades and despite some occasional cases of intolerance, they continue to do so.

References:

  1. CNN - The woman who defied Saudi's driving ban and put it on YouTube
     
  2. The Guardian - Saudi Arabian women risk arrest as they defy ban on driving
     
  3. Reuters - Afghan woman pushes for rights from behind the wheel