By Angus McDowall
RIYADH (Reuters) - Women members of Saudi Arabia's influential Shoura Council which advises King Abdullah have proposed allowing women to drive, challenging a tradition upheld by the deeply conservative clerical establishment.
The council is the nearest the kingdom has to a parliament, though its members are not elected but appointed by the king and cannot make laws but only issue recommendations. However, these recommendations have often in the past prefigured Saudi reforms.
Conservative Saudis say letting women drive would encourage the sexes to mix in public unchaperoned and thus threaten public morality, but it is an important demand of many women who now rely on expensive private drivers to perform basic daily tasks.
There is no specific law to prevent women from driving in Saudi Arabia, but they cannot apply for driving licenses and have previously been arrested on charges relating to public order or political protest after getting behind the wheel.
Hanan al-Ahmadi, one of 30 women appointed by King Abdullah to the Council in January, said the issue of letting women drive came up on Tuesday, apparently spontaneously, during discussions about the transport ministry's performance.
"Men and women members were discussing the obstacle of women's transportation and how it's a burden for women working with families and the lack of other options like public transport," she said.
Then one of her female colleagues, Latifa al-Shaalan, stood and proposed that the Shoura Council's transportation committee should include a recommendation that the Transport Ministry make preparations to allow women to drive.
"Nobody raised their voice or opposed it. I think people were expecting it. I believe she received many notes of support afterwards from other members," Ahmadi said.
The Shoura Council's transport committee must now decide whether to accept the recommendation and put it to the Transport Ministry, something not likely to happen for several weeks.
If it rejects it, the speaker may ask members to vote on whether to discuss the ban as a separate issue, Ahmadi said.
A group of women's rights activists have called for a new campaign on October 26 to push for an end to the ban. Previous campaigns, in which women have defied the law to drive in public, have ended with arrests of participants.
Under Saudi Arabia's rigid Wahhabi school of Sunni Islam, women fall under the legal authority of a male relative, known as their "guardian", who can stop them travelling abroad, getting a job or opening a bank account.
The proposal on women drivers follows other cautious moves by King Abdullah aimed at giving women more say, including the decision to appoint them to the Council. He has also urged the government to improve job opportunities for women.
The ban has long been debated in private circles in Saudi Arabia but rarely in public by senior figures or officials.
Religious leaders no longer argue, as some have in the past, that women are not allowed to drive under Islamic Sharia law. Opponents of change instead cite fears about public morality.
Last month the head of the powerful morality police, Sheikh Abdulatif Al al-Sheikh, told Reuters there was no text in Sharia that forbade women from driving.
Ahmadi, who used to drive in the United States when she lived there as a student, said she welcomed the recommendation but would probably not drive herself if it were permitted.
"Some who are more courageous than me might do it. But it is not an easy thing," she said.
"For a society that took so long to discuss this issue and has been subjected to so much preaching on the harm women driving might do, we are programmed to reject it rather than accept it," she said.
(Editing by William Maclean and Gareth Jones)