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Saudi Arabia's women get in the driver's seat

June 17, 2011

Female activists in the kingdom are defying the traditional ban on women driving. Harsh warnings by authorities are doing little to hamper their resolve.

logo of the women 2 drive campaign
The campaigners are appealing to King Abdullah for change

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah said years ago it will only be a matter of time before women can drive in the kingdom. But people have to be ready for it, he told Barbara Walters in an interview in 2005.

But, six years on, the ruler has yet to initiate any changes to the ban - and the kingdom's women are now taking matters into their own hands. On Friday, Saudi women began to follow an appeal to get behind the wheel and drive. Dozens of rights activists had launched the Facebook campaign "Women2drive." They said the action will keep going "until a royal decree allowing women to drive is issued."

IT consultant Manal al-Sherif is at the forefront of the grassroots campaign. The 32-year-old single mother was detained for 10 days last month after she posted a video of herself driving her car around the eastern Saudi city of Khobar on YouTube - calling on other women holding international driver's licenses to do the same.

Al-Sherif, who learned how to drive while studying in the US, faces charges of "besmirching the kingdom's reputation abroad and stirring up public opinion." But she said her appeal is not aimed at breaking laws or defying the government.

"We just want to claim our simplest rights," al-Sherif said. "We possess driver's licenses, will follow traffic rules and are fed up with the endless discussions. We want to finally see some action."

Camels, but not cars?

man and woman in saudi arabia
Women are utterly dependent on their male guardian in Saudi ArabiaImage: picture-alliance/dpa/DW

Women in Saudi Arabia face a large number of restrictions. All women require a male guardian, typically a husband, father or brother. His permission is required for women to travel, get a job or open a bank account, among other things.

And Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world in which women are not allowed to drive. The kingdom only issues driver's licenses to Saudi men. However, the ban is not based on any secular or religious law, but rather on a fatwa issued by Saudi clerics in 1991. The interior ministry subsequently decreed that women mustn't drive.

The restriction severely inhibits their movement. They are dependent on a male relative to drive them around, or need to spend up to $500 (355 Euros) a month to hire a driver. As many women supporting "Women2drive" point out, there is no religious justification for this.

"Islam doesn't have a driving ban for women," television news presenter Bouthaina al-Nasr told German broadcaster ZDF. "We used to be able to ride on horses or camels. So today, there shouldn't be any restrictions, either."

After all, women played a key role in Muslim communities in the early years of Islam, said Farzaneh Milani, a professor in the Studies in Women and Gender department at the University of Virginia.

"If Muslim women could ride camels 14 centuries ago, why shouldn't they drive cars today?" Milani said in an opinion piece for the New York Times earlier this week.

Getting the ball rolling

veiled woman unlocking a car
Women in Saudi Arabia want to be able to control their own mobilityImage: dpa - Bildfunk

For the large part, Saudi Arabia has remained untouched by the ongoing upheaval across the Arab world. But it seems that women in the kingdom have looked how they can use the tools of their neighbors to their advantage: Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

They have taken their cause to the global media, giving numerous interviews on international television and sending an open letter both to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the European Union's High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton asking for their support. Tens of thousands of people around the world have signed the letters.

Opponents, however, have also turned to social media. The predominantly male advocates of the driving ban are tweeting, posting videos and have launched their own Facebook sites, for example the "Iqal Campaign." An iqal is the cord used to hold on the traditional headdress worn by many men in the region. It is advocating the cord be used to beat women who dare to drive. But the fan community has been marginal.

Hala Aldosari, a Saudi journalist and women's rights activist based in the US, told Deutsche Welle that such opposition was always the case when change was involved.

"Such scenarios always repeat themselves when it comes down to women getting more independence," Aldosari said. "Back when girls were allowed education, the police even had to protect the schools."

The power of a car key

The attempts at intimidation have done little to quell support for "Women2drive," said Isobel Coleman, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York and an expert on Islamic feminism.

"This is the largest organized protest by Saudi women and so far, the leaders of the campaign have refused to back down even in the face of harsh government repression," Coleman wrote in her blog. And though the protest drive may do little to change Saudi women's lives, it did represent "a watershed moment."

"The government rightly sees this as the thin edge of a wedge that could crack open Saudi Arabia's medieval system in ways that could spin out of control," Coleman said.

Milani also said that the Saudi regime understood "the gravity of the situation." The campaign was about more than just the right to motorized mobility.

"They want not just to drive but to remap the political geography of their country," Milani said. "Like the man who faced down tanks in Tiananmen Square, like the unprecedented number of women participating in protests across the Middle East and North Africa, the Saudi women's campaign for the right to drive is harbinger of a new era in the region."

Author: Sabina Casagrande
Editor: Rob Mudge