The most prominent princess in Saudi Arabia's royal family said yesterday that if she could change one thing about her country, she would let women drive a rare and direct challenge against the driving ban imposed by the kingdom's ruling male elite.
The comment from Princess Lolwah Al-Faisal, the daughter of a former Saudi king and sister of the country's current foreign minister, came during a session at the World Economic Forum's annual meeting a forum known for getting world leaders to engage in frank, often off-the-record dialogue without fear of being criticized.
Al-Faisal, however, spoke at a public session on promoting religious tolerance. Other attendees included former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, the prime minister of Malaysia, an orthodox Jewish rabbi/peace activist from Israel and an American cleric.
The moderator, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, asked panel members at one point to "self-criticize" and say what they would change to promote greater interfaith understanding.
Turning to the princess, he quipped: "What would you do, princess, if you were 'queen' for a day? I won't tell anyone."
"First thing, I'd let women drive," Al-Faisal said dryly, as the audience erupted in applause and laughter. She added as the applause died down, "Or else have a great transportation system, which we don't have."
Women in Saudi Arabia now can work at many jobs that previously were off-limits a point the princess made. But critics say their inability to drive holds them back, in reality, from many jobs by forcing them to rely on hired drivers, or on male family members, to get to work or even to school.
Some critics say the driving ban particularly impacts poorer Saudi families who, unlike the rich or the royal family, cannot afford to hire drivers to carry wives and daughters to jobs and school.
Because of that, some view the ban not just as a women's rights issue, but also as a factor holding back the country's economic development.
Most visible female figure
Al-Faisal, 59, is the most publicly visible female member of the royal family and one of the highest-profile Saudi women in general. She led a delegation of Saudi women business leaders to Hong Kong last year, has appeared at US forums on interfaith dialogue and heads a prominent Saudi women's college.
But it is rare for her even to speak in public or in front of the media. And she has never before publicly pushed for a lifting of the driving ban.
Conservatives are vocal in pushing to retain the driving ban saying that allowing women to drive would inevitably lead to their moral corruption, by forcing them to interact with men who are not relatives in places such as gas stations.
Other Gulf countries, including Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, and other Arab countries allow women to drive.
Source: China Daily/Agencies