Mohammed al-Zulfa's knew his proposal last month to Saudi Arabia's appointed advisory council, of which he is a member, would stir controversy. Even so, he was taken aback by the reaction.

Some people said he should be booted off the all-male Shura Council, which has the power to change old laws and draft new ones. Another made death threats against him and his family.

The step would be almost revolutionary for the kingdom's conservative and segregated Muslim society.

"It's as if I am calling for women to take their clothes off on the street," he told Reuters. "I was only asking a normal question, about a normal issue."

Conservative Saudis say that allowing women to drive would expose them to strange men, and encourage young people to date - which would be anathema to the traditional practice of arranged, or at least closely supervised, marriage.

Those in favour of lifting the ban say the accepted practice of hiring foreign drivers to get around it is even less compatible with Islamic social norms. It also places a heavy burden on Saudi families who cannot afford such a luxury.

Zulfa says if the 150-member council does not vote on his proposal, it would be the first time it does not follow its own procedures.

The laws have gone to an internal committee and when they return for a vote, he will find out if it can be included.

"I am still hoping and waiting. I think it's the right place and time for this matter ... to be discussed and I hope my colleagues will be brave enough not to resist," he said.

Regardless of the outcome, the issue he raised is being debated more openly than ever before in newspapers, by important officials and the public.

Social, not religious

A top official and a senior cleric have made significant public comments on whether allowing women to drive is an act that breaks faith with Islam.

Interior Minister Prince Naif characterised the ban as a social rather than religious issue, which in theory means that if society wanted to see it lifted, there would be no obstacle.

Saudi women often have to wait
for their drivers to pick them up

The catch is whether Saudi society - which follows an austere doctrine of Islam - really does.

Shaikh Abdullah ibn Munee, a member of the Council of Senior Ulema - Saudi Arabia's highest religious body - lent some support to Naif by saying scholars had not discussed the issue, but that it was not religiously forbidden for women to drive.

"We never said it was haram (sinful) for women to drive. We do not say it is haram, but we say that it is for the good of our daughters not to drive," the Arab News quoted him as saying.

Such comments may have encouraged a member of a 1990 women's driving protest that shocked the kingdom to again speak out.

Fawziah al-Bakr, a 37-year-old university teacher spent a night in jail alongside 47 other women for taking part in the protest drive 15 years ago.

She said lifting the ban was a matter of conditioning people in a society where demonstrations are virtually unheard of and questioning religious tenets unthinkable.

"People had to get used to the idea of education for girls; they can get used to the idea of women driving. It is of course not the most important issue, but it is an important expression of freedom, mobility and access for women," she said.

Local newspapers have been filled with debate and editorials on the issue. One showed a photograph of a Saudi woman driving her car in the desert. A piece in Arab News newspaper carried the headline: "Let Them Be at the Helm."

Expensive drivers

Many among the country's liberal minority hope the time could be right for Saudi authorities to lift the ban, which they believe is in the interests of the country's economy.

"People had to get used to the idea of education for girls, they can get used to the idea of women driving"

Fawziah al-Bakr, university teacher jailed for a protest drive in 1990

Foreign drivers cost the kingdom more than 12 billion riyals ($3.2 billion) a year, according to Zulfa's estimates.

"It should be obvious to us all today that the future growth and prosperity of our country depends largely on women and their equal role in society," said oil consultant Hassan Yassin.

"We can ignore it and delay it all we want, but we cannot stop this from happening. With courage and confidence we should grab the initiative and take those steps which are in the interest of our country and economy," he said.

Saudi women, who support the cause, say the government should give them the option, whether society approves or not, in the same way that the late King Faisal imposed education for girls on an unwilling public in 1960.

"I think ... the government should take the initiative. If people don't want to do it (drive), it's up to them. But this is getting silly; it's giving Saudi Arabia a bad image. I feel sad about this, it's humiliating," Bakr said.