The campaign to allow Saudi women behind the wheel has been a generation in the making.
On May 22, Manal al-Sharif, a 32-year-old single mother in Saudi Arabia, was imprisoned for nine days for the crime of driving a car in the city of Khobar. Sharif, a women’s rights activist whose arrest was filmed and posted to YouTube, has helped ignite a worldwide media storm over the Saudi government’s treatment of women. Most recently, Sharif helped create a popular Facebook page calling on Saudi women to publicly drive on June 17.
Sharif is just one in a long line of Saudi women to be arrested for driving a car. Late in the afternoon of Nov. 6, 1990, 47 Riyadh women first decided to take matters, and the steering wheel, into their own hands. Carefully wrapped in their abayas — the black full-body robe forced on Saudi women — they drove their cars in a convoy around the capital for half an hour. The veiled drivers, who divided themselves into 14 cars, included academics, doctors, teachers, housewives, and students from upper-middle-class Riyadh families. They made sure that the woman driver in each car had obtained a driver’s license from abroad. But it didn’t take long for both the traffic and the religious police forces to halt their ambitious drive.
The women were ordered to relinquish their driving seats to police officers, who promptly motored them to al-Olaya police station. In prison, the women were interrogated and detained briefly before being released after signing an official document pledging never to drive a car again or be in the company of a female driver.
Although the women didn’t stay long in prison, they suffered the consequences of their actions for the next three years. Shortly after the incident, they were suspended from their government jobs for two years and eight months.
The kingdom tried to quash any mention of the incident in the Saudi press. "It’s like they never existed. But still everyone in the country knew about them," a Saudi journalist, who requested anonymity, told me. The only official public reaction was an Interior Ministry statement that didn’t mention the Riyadh drivers directly but reiterated that women were "absolutely prohibited" from driving and promised punishment for women violating that edict. The statement was broadcast on TV and radio and published in all newspapers.
Saudi Arabia’s ultra-orthodox religious establishment had no hesitations about spreading the story, with the purpose of turning the women into social pariahs. Sheikhs and imams at mosques all over Riyadh attacked them in their Friday sermons; mosque circle gatherings and lectures in public and private meetings called them "prostitutes," "American secularists," "communists," and worse. Pamphlets that included the full names of the women, as well as recorded cassettes of famous sheikhs’ attacks on them, were distributed all over Riyadh for the next two years.
It took Saudi Arabia more than a decade to learn the exact details of the Riyadh women drivers’ story. In 2004, one of the women, Aziza al-Manea, a professor in the women’s section of King Saud University, shared her account of the highly controversial story in an interview in the al-Madina daily.
In the early 2000s, women’s rights, particularly the right to drive, began to be cautiously discussed in Saudi media. Some newspapers published stories about the daily struggles women faced with foreign drivers and featured Islamic scholars who declared that no religious rule prohibited women from driving. Liberal columnists encouraged the government to lift the ban. This unprecedented freedom in the Saudi press was in part due to the pressure that the United States put on the Saudi government to reform following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
In 2005, Shura Council member Mohammad al-Zulfa brought up the topic of lifting the ban of women drivers during a meeting of the consultative body. He argued that doing so would save the kingdom funds that it spends on foreign drivers, which he estimated at over $3 billion a year.
Zulfa’s proposal started a heated discussion among Saudis, and encouraged two young Saudi women journalists, Eman al-Qahtani and Asmaa al-Mohammed, to send a letter to the newly formed National Society for Human Rights (NSHR), a human rights organization that now serves as a government watchdog, requesting its help in lifting the ban on women driving. One hundred and two Saudis, a majority of whom were women, signed the letter, which stated that if authorities refused to lift the ban on women who suffer the risks and high salaries of foreign drivers, the women should be compensated.
Saudi hardliners, however, were not prepared to give in so easily. In June 2005, Interior Minister Prince Naif described the lively discussion of the topic as "a controversy which has no meaning…. It looks like some people want to make it an issue but it’s not."
However, cracks within the official wall also began to appear. Later that same year, King Abdullah contradicted his half brother in an interview with Barbara Walters. "The day will come when women drive," the king said. "The issue will require patience … and I believe patience is a virtue."
The Saudi government’s focus on the need to gain society’s acceptance of women driving has prompted activists to gather petitions showing popular support. On Sept. 23, 2007, the Saudi national day, Saudi women’s rights activists Fawzia al-Oyouni and Wajeeha al-Howaider asked Saudis to join them in petitioning King Abdullah to grant them the right to drive. Their petition, which was circulated widely on the Internet, represented the first time that the driving campaign was opened for all citizens to participate, and not constrained to an elite circle of writers and activists.
The petition was signed by 1,100 Saudis, and remains to this day the highest number of citizens ever to petition King Abdullah. It was delivered to the Saudi royal court and, according to the founders of the petition, was welcomed by some Saudi officials. The petition gained unprecedented nation and international media coverage, and its creators were interviewed on the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya news channel.
Women activists have kept up the pressure on the Saudi government in recent years. In March 2008, on International Women’s Day, al-Howaider filmed herself driving and called on Prince Naif to lift the ban. She uploaded the video to YouTube, where it now has over 200,000 views.
Rumors have continued to fly that the ban will be lifted soon, but nothing has yet changed on the ground. During Sharif’s imprisonment, Deputy Interior Minister Prince Ahmad said that women’s driving remains illegal. "A statement was issued in 1990 prohibiting women from driving cars in the Kingdom. The Interior Ministry’s task is to implement an order. It is not our job to say something is right or wrong," he told journalists at a press conference in the city of Medina. After two decades of activism, Sharif won’t be the last Saudi woman to be arrested for driving — but she may be one of the last.