Women activists in Saudi Arabia tried once, they tried again and are now making a third challenge the kingdom’s long-standing driving ban on female drivers.
Some women have recently made short drives, posting videos on a social media sites, and many more are planning to get behind the wheel on Saturday.
Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that effectively prohibits women from driving, a ban supported by conservative clerics. While there is no law formally banning women drivers, the government does not give them licenses.
However, government authorities seem to be more lenient these days.
Sara Hussein, 32, says it’s time to claim the right to drive.
“Think back in history – Rosa Parks was the only person who sat down on the bus, wasn’t she, and then it started to happen gradually,” says Hussein, referring to the African-American woman who refused to sit on the back of the bus. “It does have to start with the few brave people who are willing to risk whatever there is to risk.”
Her mother, Aziza al-Yousef, who is in her 50s and teaches computer science at King Saud University, is a key organizer of the drive in. Activists set Saturday as a date for a national road rally, but also encouraged women to just get behind the wheel any time.
“We are saying, ‘Just go ahead and drive now,’” says al-Yousef. “I know women started driving. The messages are in the hundreds. We are counting the video tapes.”
The mother and daughter say the videos are coming from across the kingdom and even show one man teaching his wife and sister to drive.
Relying On Male Drivers
Saudi Arabia was made for driving, with wide open spaces and cheap gas. The sprawling capital Riyadh is as big as Los Angeles with no dependable public transportation.
Women must rely on men to drive them around. They may be male relatives or drivers who are part of the army of country’s imported labor. But this is expensive and an intrustion into their lives, many women say.
As the country changes bit by bit, the prohibition on women drivers can contradict other efforts by the government. For example, the government is urging private companies to hire more women. It is hard to see how that can happen unless women can drive to work, says Hussein.
“No one has been given orders from higher up” to arrest women drivers, she adds.
Aziza al-Yousef says this campaign, the third challenge to the driving ban, has learned from past mistakes.
In 1990, 47 women made the first attempt to challenge the ban. They all lost their jobs, were prohibited from traveling for years, and were shunned for their defiance.
The next challenge came in 2011, when activists Maha al-Qatani was the first Saudi woman to get a traffic ticket. The campaign fizzled after some women were jailed for driving. But soon after, King Abdullah said women could vote in local elections and 30 women were appointed to the 150-member Shura Council, an advisory body to the king.
Going For A Spin
Al-Yousef — who has an international driver’s license — says she and other drivers don’t want to break laws aside from the one banning driving.
Al-Yousef now takes a short drive every day. She invites me to join her for a cruise around the capital. We get in the front. Her male driver climbs in the back. And we take to the road.
“I need people to see that it is normal, we have to let people accept it,” al-Yousef says. “It doesn’t mean anything if you drive only one day.”
The afternoon traffic is so heavy that nobody notices two women in the front seat of a car.
Then we approach a police station.
“Let’s see what their reaction is,” she says. “You watch it – it’s going to be on your right.”
She says the head of the national police stated publicly that his officers would not arrest women for driving. But they will ticket those without a license, which is impossible for a woman to get here.
Al-Yousef drives like a pro. She learned while attending a university in the U.S. The only time she shows excitement is when another activist calls her.
“I am driving!” she announces with a distinct rise in her voice.
We end our drive at her front door, where her husband is there to meet her.
“Hello, I’m a coward. How do you do,” her husband, Moisen al-Haydar, says with a laugh.
Al-Haydar says he’s given up driving. He’s proud of his wife for braving Riyadh’s hectic traffic. He supports her driving campaign, but he’s worried, too.
Threats Against Activists
There have been on-line threats and insults against activists. Al-Yousef filed a case this week against the attackers in court. Also this week, conservative clerics urged King Abdullah to stop Saturday’s drive in, but the king did not meet with the complaining clerics.
Al-Yousef sweeps away her husbands concerns and sits down to check the driving videos filed today.
“We’ve had four today and we are now up to 100 videos,” she says as she turns up the volume on the latest driving demonstration.
Referring to the video, al-Yousef translates the Arabic: “She says this is a very positive movement, Saudi ladies should have the choice to drive her own car. and she named the tape, ‘Yes, we can.”
The final decision is up to the king, who has said he believes women have the right to drive, but hasn’t said when.