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Last Updated: Thursday, 27 May, 2004, 10:36 GMT 11:36 UK
Crash sparks Saudi driving debate
By Sebastian Usher
BBC world media correspondent

Saudi men and women
Women have been banned from driving since 1990
A woman has been killed while driving a car in the north of the desert kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

While this may not be an unusual occurrence anywhere else in the world, it is a real rarity in Saudi Arabia, since women are banned from driving there.

So rare is it, in fact, that one of the Arab world's leading newspapers, al-Quds al-Arabi, deemed it worthy of a headline on its front page just beneath the latest developments in Iraq.

The details of the story are banal enough, though tragic. Al-Quds al-Arabi reports that the woman was driving along a road in the Badia desert region last Sunday when her car had a collision with another vehicle.

The woman driver and her mother, who was in the car with her, were killed.

U-turn ahead?

Saudi Arabia has a high death rate on its roads, but accidents involving women drivers are all but unknown, for the simple reason that women are not allowed to drive.

This was originally an unofficial ban, but it became law after an incident in 1990, when 47 women from the Saudi intelligentsia challenged the authorities by taking their husbands' and brothers' cars out for a drive.

The backlash from the Saudi religious elite was swift. Many of the women lost their jobs or were harassed in other ways.

Recently, though, there have been moves to give Saudi women greater rights, prompting speculation that some women may be allowed driving licences in the near future.

Laws flouted

In any case, as al-Quds al-Arabi says in its reports, a number of Saudi women are already known to drive despite the ban.

In the remote region where this accident occurred, the paper says women drive on farms and in the desert, something that happens in other parts of the country too.

Several Saudi newspaper commentators have argued for an end to the ban, on the grounds that employing drivers to transport women everywhere is a drain on the economy.

In contrast, a recent column in the newspaper al-Watan actually blamed women for causing many traffic accidents, saying they interfere too much as backseat drivers.

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