This coming weekend, Saudi women will take to the streets—in their cars. As it stands, there is a de facto policy banning women from claiming the driver’s seat. While there is no law that explicitly bans driving within Saudi legislature, it is illegal to get a Saudi license or to use a foreign driver’s license. Women must turn to their male family members or costly chauffeurs for transportation. As such, many women hope that a driving protest on October 26th, 2013 will serve as a catalyst and accelerate significant change in Riyadh’s policy toward women drivers.
The ability to drive signifies an element of independence for Saudi women—especially within a country where women must get the permission of a male relative to attend school, to open a bank account, and to work. Driving allows Saudi women the ability to dictate their own schedules without having to rely on others. It allows women to potentially leave their homes with more frequency.
Conservatives in the Saudi Kingdom still argue to uphold the ban. Some clerics claim that driving can pose serious health risks to women, such as damage to the ovaries. Most Saudi's balked at this statement. Others fear that allowing women to drive will disrupt the social structure in the country. By spending more time behind the wheel, women are more likely to forgo their obligations to their families. Some even fear that permitting women to drive will result in a spike in crime rates as “some men could start disguising as women by covering their faces” and the consequences could be violent.
But despite these reasons, the head of the Saudi moral police claims, “there is no text in the documents making up shari’a law that bars women from driving.”
On this premise that driving does not violate any religious doctrine, Saudi women have recently reignited a campaign to encourage women throughout the country to film themselves driving and upload their outings on social media.
Beyond holding a driving protest in the coming week, a petition against the ban has gained more than 16,000 signatures in the past two months. Furthermore, female activists plan on approaching King Abdullah directly, who has claimed to be a proponent of women’s rights, and urging him to lift the ban
Emam Al Nafjan, one of the leaders of this campaign, was pulled over by two policemen while she filmed and subsequently tweeted about her female friend in the driver’s seat. Surprisingly, Al Nafjan noted that the police were supportive of women driving, but had only pulled the two women over because of her “live Twitter reporting on the protest drive.”
They are among many men who are supportive of the campaign. In videos that Al Nafjan and other women have uploaded, men can be seen in other cars giving them the thumbs up and waving. In the video below , a father teaches his daughter how to drive.
When Al Nafjan was brought to the police department, she was asked to sign two documents: one stated she would not drive in a car with a female driver and the second that she would no longer document women drivers.
She responded that her actions were not wrong and that “it doesn't matter whether or not I go out. This isn't about me. This is a people's movement. This is not about me. This is about many women.”
She was not arrested for her actions or for this bold statement.
The lack of legal action against her represents a change in Saudi policy from the last thirty years. In 1990, forty-seven women were fired from their government jobs and forbidden to leave the country for driving. In 2011, a Saudi woman received ten lashes for taking the wheel.
While the more recent trends seem to indicate that the country as a whole is significantly more supportive than in the past, both women and men wait in both anticipation and hesitancy to see how Saudi officials will react to the drive protest on October 26th.
To read more about the October 26th driving campaign, see the site here, in Arabic.