GOVERNMENT or civic officials today must realize that with the advent of the Internet and social media outlets, information, past or present, is readily accessible and transparency in public affairs becomes essential to preserve the credibility of their organizations.
So when Chairman of the Saudi Shoura Council Abdullah Al-Asheikh stated recently that the council was ready to discuss the issue of women driving if it was asked to, he surprised a lot of people. His claim that “the issue has not so far been tabled with the council for discussion,” was met with incredulity in some quarters.
The right of a woman to drive has become the subject of wide public debate following the arrest and detention, for ten days, of Saudi woman Manal Al-Sharif for driving a car openly in the Eastern Province of the country.
Al-Asheikh, elaborating on the process of tabling issues before the council, stated that a proposal must either come from the government, or at least one member of the council or when the council itself expressed a desire to deliberate a certain issue.
Noted Saudi thinker and activist Abdullah Al-Alami, who is widely acknowledged for his contributions to social causes countered Al-Asheikh’s statements by saying that the council was formally asked to discuss the issue in a letter sent by express mail to the council back in February of this year. The request was endorsed by a former ambassador, a former undersecretary to the UN secretary-general, and included a sizable number of academics, literary figures, media professionals, businessmen and women, housewives, students and government employees.
According to Al-Alami, the Shoura Council had set up a committee meeting with a delegation from the petitioners for March 15 of this year, but the meeting was canceled hours prior to the event without any explanation.
“While we appreciate the council’s efforts to consider the issues of concern to society, we urge it to review the project that we have submitted to it which contains the advantages of allowing women to drive cars and the negative effects resulting from the presence of a large number of foreign drivers socially and economically as well as from a security point of view,” he said.
Understandably, Al-Alami can be forgiven if he is astonished by the Shoura Council chairman’s statements. But then let’s try to understand why the Shoura Council would need outside involvement in this issue, when one of their own for many years was trying to table the issue of women driving and was continuously overruled.
Back in 2006, Shoura Council member Mohammed Al-Zulfa had repeatedly led calls in the council for the issue to be tabled and to take action. Al-Zulfa and Dr. Abdullah Bukhari, both noted members of the Shoura Council, were pushing for a debate on this matter. Al-Zulfa later said that he was surrounded and intimidated by angry members at one of the debates because of his opinions. In a statement to the press at the time, Al-Zulfa stated, “I told them the Qur’an and the Sunnah do not prevent it, and not allowing women to drive creates more social problems than preventing them. The paroxysms of anger these people go into don’t help the matter. They are a minority who are very loud, and they are tense now because of the open atmosphere for debate.”
Were these debates not recorded in Shoura archives? If indeed the Shoura Council chairman claims that this issue has not reached the council before, then are Al-Alami and Al-Zulfa and others like them blowing smoke? Men whose credibility is beyond question?
In the same year, the then Saudi Minister of Information Iyad Madani, encouraged women to lobby traffic departments, saying there was no formal legal ban. Speaking before an economic forum, he told the women audience to go ahead and apply for their driving licenses. Such a call from a reformer and one with a seat on the Council of Ministers was seen as an encouraging signal for the Shoura Council to table the motion and work on it. His statements made front-page headlines in all the Kingdom’s newspapers. Did the Shoura Council not get the signal then?
At that time, some scholars claimed that driving was a “physical activity that conflicted with women’s divinely ordained role as homemakers.” It has gradually dawned on many minds in the following years that religion had nothing to do with the ban. Muhammad Abdullatif Al-Sheikh, a Saudi scholar, said that the ball was now in the court of the political leadership since the issue was political rather than religious. “Islamic teachings, which did not prevent women from mounting camels and horses, would not forbid them from driving cars,” he wrote.
It is unfortunate for half the Saudi population that years pass on, and yet we remain mired in something as basic as allowing women to drive. What is more distressing is when transparency by officials takes a back seat to statements meant to please or pacify some segment of the population. No more flip-flops please.