Saudi women take the wheel en masse – and dare leaders to catch up

Saudi women will challenge the female driving ban by taking to the road tomorrow. They say conservative lawmakers are the only ones still opposed.

A Saudi Arabian woman drives a car as part of a campaign to defy Saudi Arabia's ban on women driving, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, June 17, 2011. Activists hope hundreds of Saudi women will get behind the wheel and persuade the government to end the ban on women driving, Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013.

A Saudi campaign to legalize female driving has picked up steam ahead of a protest planned for tomorrow, when activists hope hundreds of Saudi women will get behind the wheel and persuade the government to end the ban – a step some see as a prelude to broader rights for women in the country. 

“We are hoping to have a decree from the king because a few years ago they announced that … when society is ready, they will allow women to drive,” says college professor Aziza Al Yousef, noting that men have actively joined the cause for the first time. “This is just to show officials that society is ready.”

But Ms. Al Yousef and other participants haven’t waited for the official day of protest to hit the road; she says she’s been driving three to four times a week since the last protest, in June 2011. Taking advantage of one of the most active social media communities in the Middle East to press for change, these ladies have made videos of themselves driving day and night, on highways and crowded city streets – sometimes with a car full of boys or a man in a red-checkered headdress giving a thumbs-up as they pass by.

And so far, no one has gone to jail or received any lashings. In fact, policemen have been downright friendly, say women who have been stopped, and even senior officials have sent strong signals that they will not prosecute women caught driving.

Justice Minister Muhammad Al-Isa said in April that there is no constitutional or regulatory prohibition on women driving in the kingdom. And the head of Saudi Arabia’s religious police, Sheikh Abdullatif al-Sheikh, made waves when he told Reuters last month that there was no grounds in sharia, or Islamic law, to ban women from driving.  

“The fact that there aren’t any orders from higher up saying that if a woman is caught driving she will be stopped indicates that there is some kind of support,” says Sara Al Haidar, Al Yousef's daughter. Ms. Al Haidar has promoted the campaign on Twitter though not on wheels, since her desert driving lessons with her husband got put on hold when she had triplets. 

Social media is fertile ground for such campaigns in Saudi, which has more people online than Syria, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon and Oman combined. It has the highest percentage of people on Twitter of any Middle Eastern country but Kuwait, and is responsible for half the tweets in the region every day. Even prominent sheikhs are online, with some claiming more than 1 million followers on Twitter.  

Men have joined in, offering commentary from the passenger’s seat as they videotape their mom or sister or wife or daughter driving. They’ve also posted photos on Instagram, with slogans such as, “I’m tired of chauffeuring my six sisters all over town. Let them drive.”

While humor has played a part in the Oct. 26 campaign, it is an issue with serious implications, not least of all financial. Many women who work spend a substantial part of their salary, if not most of it, paying for a driver to get to the office and back. And it hampers activism; whether a woman is involved in helping abused children or defending those detained without trial, she needs to be mobile.

Currently, it is impossible for a woman to get a driver’s license in Saudi and authorities have said that those driving without a license will be given a ticket.

More than 16,000 people have signed an online petition urging the state to “provide appropriate means for women seeking the issuance of permits and licenses to apply and obtain them.” 

To be sure, there are strong currents of opposition in Saudi Arabia’s conservative society, where women are required to have the company or approval of a male guardian to navigate many areas of life.

On Thursday, the Ministry of Interior spokesman implied the campaign is "sedition," according to Saudi Press Agency.

The laws of the Kingdom prohibit activities disturbing the public peace and opening venues to sedition which only serve the senseless, the ill-intentioned intruders and opportunity hunters, the statement said. The Ministry of Interior assures all, the statement added, the concerned bodies will fully and firmly enforce the laws against violators. At the same time, the Ministry values what many citizens have voiced concerning the importance of keeping the peace, stability, and avoidance of what leads to disunity and stratification of society.

The kingdom ranks No. 131 out of 135 countries on the Global Gender Gap Report, though King Abdullah has made some gradual reforms, including the appointment of 30 women to the Majles al-Shura earlier this year. The king is seen as more reformist than the conservative clerical establishment, however. A relatively obscure sheikh triggered a wave of media coverage when he claimed recently that driving would harm women’s ovaries.

But Al Haidar says that support for the campaign – including videos of women driving – is coming even from the most conservative areas of the country. 

She says her mother, who learned to drive in Louisville, Ky., in 1981, was invited to take part in a debate on an extremely religious TV program but those in charge of the program couldn’t find someone who would represent the opposition.

“I think a lot of people don’t want to appear on the opposing side of the issue because they think the issue is going to be resolved and they don’t want to appear on the losing side,” says Al Haidar.

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