Saudis Furious at Proposed Reversal of Women Drivers Ban

He just wanted his colleagues in the government's legislative arm to discuss the possibility of conducting a study into the feasibility of reversing the ban on women drivers — the only prohibition of its kind in the world.

But Consultative Council member Mohammad al-Zulfa's (search ) proposal has unleashed a storm in this conservative country where the subject of women drivers remains taboo.

Al-Zulfa's cell phone now constantly rings with furious Saudis accusing him of encouraging women to commit the double sins of discarding their veils and mixing with men. He gets phone text messages calling on Allah to freeze his blood. Chat rooms bristle with insulting accusations that al-Zulfa is "driven by carnal instincts with 454 horsepower."

There even have been calls to kick al-Zulfa from the council and strip him of his Saudi nationality.

The uproar may be astounding to outsiders. But in Saudi Arabia, where the religious establishment has the upper hand in defining women's freedoms, the issue touches on the kingdom's strict Islamic lifestyle.

Conservatives, who believe women should be shielded from strange men, say driving will allow a woman to leave home whenever she pleases and go wherever she wishes. Some say it will present her with opportunities to violate Islamic law (search ), such as exposing her eyes while driving or interacting with strange men, like police officers or mechanics.

"Driving by women leads to evil," Munir al-Shahrani wrote in a letter to the editor of the Al-Watan daily. "Can you imagine what it will be like if her car broke down? She would have to seek help from men."

But al-Zulfa contends neither the law nor Islam bans women from driving. Instead, the ban is based on fatwas, or Islamic edicts, by senior clerics who say that any driving by women would create situations for sinful temptation.

It is the same argument used to restrict other freedoms. Without written permission from a male guardian, women may not travel, get an education or work. Regardless of permission, they are not allowed to mix with men in public or leave home without wearing black cloaks, called abayas.

Some 50 women who defied the ban and drove in November 1990 — when U.S. troops were protecting Saudi Arabia during Iraq's invasion of Kuwait — were jailed for one day, their passports were confiscated and they lost their jobs.

The driving prohibition has forced families to hire live-in drivers, who, strangely, are allowed to be alone with women. Al-Zulfa said clerics have deemed this a lesser evil than driving. Women whose families cannot afford to pay $300 to $400 a month for drivers rely on male relatives to take them around.

Al-Zulfa brought up the issue a month ago in an open session of the Consultative Council (search ), an appointed body that acts like a parliament.

The session focused on a new traffic law, and the Council members were discussing government statistics about more than 5,000 traffic deaths each year. They also were discussing the fact that the large number of foreign drivers — about 1 million — have economic repercussions.

"I know that talking about women driving is taboo, so I decided to take advantage of our discussions to bring up the topic," said the Western-educated al-Zulfa.

Al-Zulfa, 61, said he proposed that a study be conducted to review the issue, arguing that allowing women behind the wheel would save Saudis both money and lives — since he believes women are cautious drivers.

Al-Zulfa suggested that only women over age 35 or 40 be allowed to drive and only in cities. On highways, he said, they could drive if accompanied by male guardians.

Al-Zulfa put the proposal in writing and sent it to the council's presidency so it can appoint a date for discussing it. But apparently worried about the conservatives' reaction, council head, Sheik Saleh bin Humaid, has not responded.

Despite the harsh outcry, not all the reaction has been negative.

Abdulrahman al-Rashed, a Saudi who is general manager of Al-Arabiya television, wrote in a recent column in Asharq al-Awsat paper: "It's inconceivable that in a country of 25 million, a third of them are women who wait for a driver every day to take them to school, the hospital and relatives' homes."

Many women activists also welcomed al-Zulfa's suggestion. But others lashed out at him for using the issue to project himself as a reformer.

In a strongly worded article, Wajiha al-Huweidar said Saudi women will not allow "the intellectuals to shine and their names to glitter at our expense.

"We will not permit anyone and we have not appointed anyone to speak on our behalf," she said.