Saudi women launch new campaign to end driving ban

27.09.2013 21:03

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – Many women
in Saudi Arabia have had it. They want
the right to drive and argue there is no
religious justification for them not to.
The oil rich country of 27 million is the
only nation in the world where women
are forbidden to drive.
Saudi female activists who want the
Kingdom to lift the de facto ban have
launched an online campaign urging
women to drive on Oct. 26.
Over 10,000 women have already
signed the
declaration that says: “Since there are
no clear justifications for the state to
ban adult, capable women from
driving. We call for enabling women to
have driving tests and for issuing
licenses for those who pass.”
Although there is no traffic law that
specifically prohibits women from
driving, religious edicts are often
interpreted to mean women are not
allowed to operate a vehicle.
This is not the first effort to overthrow
the ban, but organizers hope to get
more traction this time on the heels of
recent comments by the newly
appointed head of the morality police.
"Islamic sharia does not have a text
forbidding women driving," said Sheikh
Abdulatif Al al-Sheikh, who was
appointed by Saudi's ruler King
Abdullah last year to head the
Commission for the Promotion of
Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.
He said that the morality police had
not pursued or stopped any women
for driving since he was made head of
the organization in a recent interview
with Reuters .
His comments were a departure from
the hardline attitude of his
predecessors with regards to this
highly contentious issue.
King Abdullah has pushed for cautious
social and economic reforms in the
world’s top oil exporter, including
greater rights for women.
“I think that the time is right to allow
women to drive because the whole of
the Arab world is changing,” said
Hanan, a young Saudi mother of two
teenage girls who only gave her first
name because of the sensitivity of the
“The government has taken gradual
steps towards this as they have been
educating more and more women and
increasing the opportunities and
outlets for them. Even politically,
people are craving for change and
enabling women to drive will help to
divert their focus.”
In May 2011 , prominent Saudi
women’s rights activist Manal al-Sharif
was arrested and spent more than a
week in jail for getting behind the
wheel after she posted a YouTube
video of her foray. She was hailed as a
hero by women across the country
and her arrest inspired the
Women2Drive campaign a month later.
About 70 women flouted the unwritten
regulations and got behind the wheel.
Still, opinions in this deeply
conservative country have been mixed,
with some women welcoming the push
for greater rights and others believing
that such open defiance will only set
the cause back like it did during the
first campaign in 1991.
“I don’t agree with women driving in
Saudi,” remarked Hawazen, a mother
and a college graduate who also
declined to give her last name. “Maybe
it will help, but maybe it will make
things worse. Eighty percent of the
people in this city are not open-
minded and won’t accept it.”
When asked if she would allow her
teenage daughter to drive should the
ban be overturned, she shrugged and
admitted, “My grandmother learned to
ride a horse in the north of Saudi
Arabia and then learned to drive. My
14-year-old daughter is already
choosing the car she wants with her
father who fully supports this.”
For many women, the driving issue is a
visually symbolic one bringing much
needed attention to deeper women’s
rights issues of guardianship and
“You can’t send Saudi women abroad
for years where they live an
independent life and then pretend that
you didn’t think about the
repercussions when they come back,”
complained Reem, a housewife from
an upper middle class family who also
spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“You cannot take people out of the box
and then put them back in the box
There is also the question of the
financial burden the driving ban places
on many middle class families. Drivers
cost the Saudi economy hundreds of
millions of dollars a year.
“If the government doesn’t let women
drive then they should be responsible
for paying the salaries of drivers and
the cost it incurs to import them,”
argued Hanouf, a 30-year-old
administrator in academic affairs at Al
Faisal University.
“I know many girls who can’t turn up
for work or university because their
fathers are sleeping, or their brothers
are busy, and they have no other
means of transportation.”
Asked if she would drive if it were
allowed she says, “No, I would never
drive. But this is not the point!
“I don’t think the concept is for all of
us to drive. We are waiting to be told
the reasons as to why we can’t drive!”