Researchers in Saudi Arabia released a study last week claiming that lifting the driving ban for women in the country would “provoke a surge in prostitution, pornography, homosexuality and divorce,” as well as cause the nation to have “no more virgins," prompting observers to question the seriousness of the study.
Scholars at the Majlis al-Ifta' al-A'ala, Saudi Arabia's highest religious council, collaborated on the report with Kamal Subhi, a former professor at the conservative King Fahd University.
Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where women are banned from driving, even though King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud gave women the right to vote late September.
Earlier this year, Saudi clerics issued a fatwa against challenging the royal family's authority by women drivers. The ban is not actually a part of civic law, but of Sharia, or Islamic, law, according to local media. Many clerics claimed at the time that the driving ban would prevent "vice by stopping women interacting with male strangers – despite the enforced proximity with a hired driver," according to the Guardian.
In June, some 40 female activist decided to test the ban not only by publicly and ostentatiously driving around town, but by filming themselves while at it and posting the videos on social media networks. Many of the videos went viral, ultimately leading to a number of arrests.
The filming and social media campaign was part of the “My Right, My Dignity” protest, which aimed to attract attention to the major human rights violation that the ban represents.
U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton addressed the issue at the time, claiming that the departament has raised the issue "at the highest level of the Saudi government."
"We’ve made clear our views that women everywhere, including women in the Kingdom have a right to make decisions about their lives, and their future; they have a right to contribute to the society and provide for their children, families," Clinto said on June 20. "And mobility, such as providing the opportunity to drive, provides access to economic opportunities, including jobs… It’s also important for just everyday life.”
“This is not about the United States, it is about the women of Saudi Arabia,” Clinton added. “What these women are doing is brave, and they are seeking is right. But the effort belongs to them. I am moved by it, and I support them, but I want to underscore the fact that that is not coming from outside of their country. This is the women themselves seeking to be recognized."
Facing increased international pressure about the rights of women in the country, on Sept. 25, King Abdullah granted Saudi women the right to vote in local elections starting 2015, causing many critics to accuse King Abdullah of hypocrisy, as two days later Shaima Ghassaniya, a Saudi woman, was convicted and sentenced to 10 lashes for driving in public. The punishment was recalled by King Abdullah on Sept. 28.
On the same day, Saudi Princess Ameerah Al-Taweel, wife of billionaire Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Amira, tweeted her support of women driving in Saudi Arabia and referred to the lashing sentence.
“Thank God, the lashing of Sheima is cancelled," the posting read. "Thanks to our beloved King. I'm sure all Saudi women will be so happy, I know I am."
After the controversial study on lifting the driving ban was reported by multiple publications last week, it also became a viral topic on Twitter and other social media networks. Social media has thus far provided an important forum for Saudi feminist activist, who used it for organizing the driving protests among other occasions. Many observers saw that action as part of the "Arab Spring" movement.
Tweets like this one by @TheeRashed was one of many reactions to the questionable report that has triggered criticism across the globe: “To say that lifting the ban on saudi women from driving could trigger a homosexuality wave+unvirgin women in the country is ridiculous [sic].”
In this June 2011 video, Hillary Clinton addresses Saudi Arabia's ban on women drivers: