- - Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Women in Saudi Arabia have been driving for almost a week and, to the surprise of some of the imams, the sky is still in its customary place. By eliminating the prohibition, Saudi Arabia relieves itself of the dubious distinction as the only nation anywhere forbidding women behind the wheel of an automobile.

The change is part of larger efforts by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 32, who assumed the post as heir to the throne a year ago, to drag the rich but backward kingdom into the 19th century along with Henry Ford’s automobile. There’s some kicking and screaming.

Baby steps by Western standards, the modernization efforts of the prince have nevertheless been resisted by the most backward elements of Saudi society, the ultra-hardline Wahhabis.

That women drive in every other Muslim nation seemed conclusive proof, in Western eyes, anyway, that there’s no proscription against it in the Koran. Yet Sunni Islamist hard-liners have kept Saudi women in the back seat, literally as well as figuratively. The Wahhabis have made common cause with the Islamic extremists of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. They have only harsh words for the modernization efforts of Prince Salman, who is in line to succeed his 82-year-old father, King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz.

The Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula decries the concerts, movies, circuses and even wrestling matches on the way to the desert kingdom as “sinful projects.” The imams have never learned to distinguish the tacky and the tasteless from “sinful.” Watching a wrestling match is a sin. Knocking down a skyscraper in New York, not so much. But it might be tacky and tasteless.

“[Foreign] disbelieving wrestlers exposed their privates and on most of them was the sign of the cross, with everything in front of a mixed gathering of young Muslim men and women,” the imams said of a wrestling match which attracted 60,000 Saudis in April at King Abdullah International Stadium. Many of the male wrestlers were indeed bare-chested, but there was no nudity. It’s clear enough that what angered the imams was not a flash of male flesh but the sign of the cross. Saudis must not be exposed to any hint of the Christian, lest faithful Muslims fall to the temptation of becoming Mormons or Methodists.

If a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step, allowing women to drive makes the trip possible, and a Mercedes or a Lexus makes getting there part of the fun, though women will soon enough be on the receiving end of lame women-driver jokes.

Life for women remains rigidly segregated. They must seek permission from a male relative to work or travel, and in Riyadh, restaurants remain sex-segregated. Most women in the capital still must wear the face-covering niqab. Saudi women have come a long way, and they’re not there yet. But the good news is that they’re on the way.

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