Saudi Women Plan Protest Against Driving Ban

On October 26, Saudi women will take the wheel despite severe penalties.

"Teach me how to drive." The text message came recently from a friend on my mobile phone.

In most parts of the world, there would be nothing unusual in the request. But this plea came from a Saudi woman dreaming of the day when she can finally sit in the driver's seat without being punished.

"I can't go anywhere without begging some male member of the family to take me out for a drive, even to my sister's house just a few blocks away from here," the mother of three explained.

Like all women in Saudi Arabia, she is not allowed to drive a car. Women have never been allowed to drive in the conservative kingdom. Only a few Bedouin women in isolated villages—and some expatriate women living in residential compounds—are known to drive within limited areas near their homes.

But my friend and thousands like her say they are fed up with a de facto ban that has no legal backing. Islamic sharia (law) says nothing about banning women drivers. Instead, the prohibition is a product of Saudi Arabia's traditional, staunchly male-dominated society.

In the time of the Prophet Muhammed, over 1,400 years ago, women rode camels and horses alongside the Prophet and his men. Some even joined battles and fought with swords next to the men.

But in modern-day Saudi Arabia, where cars have replaced camels, women need drivers to go anywhere. If your family can't afford to hire a chauffeur, which many average Saudi families can't—that can cost up to 2,000 riyals (570 USD) a month—then you are stuck at home for most of the day, waiting for some male member of the family to graciously take you out.

My friend, like many women, is tired of waiting.

"I will be hitting the street with my sisters this month," she declares, referring to the "October 26th" movement that is expected to draw many women drivers to the Saudi streets on Saturday in a peaceful mass demonstration against the ban.

A Social Right

This will be the third such protest, following demonstrations in 1990 and 2011 when dozens of women drove in opposition of the ban. Those courageous women paid greatly for their defiance: Those caught by the traffic police were fined and jailed, while others lost their jobs and status in society, and were banned from traveling and shunned by religious figures in the kingdom.

"I was fired immediately from my job when my boss knew I defied the driving ban and drove my car," says Madeha Al Ajroush, a Saudi psychotherapist and photographer who has an American driving license and took part in both of the previous protests. She plans to drive again on October 26.

"We women were humiliated, threatened, and continue to be treated like inferior beings. The fight for women's rights has never historically been easy, so we don't expect it to be easy to gain this basic, yet very important right to drive," she says.

Some have not even waited for the 26th: Women have recently been spotted driving on the main roads in major cities across Saudi Arabia, and some are posting videos of themselves behind the steering wheel on social media sites such as YouTube and Twitter. The campaign even has a theme song.

Driving is a "social right," say Saudi women, and, supported by many Saudi men, they are refusing to let it go this time. They want the issue to be finally resolved this year.

There are signs of progress: King Abdullah recently appointed women to his Shoura advisory council for the first time, and this month three of those women introduced a recommendation to lift the driving ban. But other council members rejected this push and refused to discuss the recommendation further.

Despite the lack of Islamic backing for the ban, some religious clerics continue to try to dissuade women from driving, with the latest declaration from one sheikh, or religious scholar, listing "damage to ovaries" as one of the reasons to avoid driving.

Sheikh Saleh Al Lohaidan warned women on the website that "physiological science" has shown that driving "automatically affects the ovaries and pushes up the pelvis ... and that is why children born to most women who continuously drive suffer from clinical disorders of varying degrees."

About 150 clerics and religious scholars also held a rare protest outside the Saudi king's palace in Jeddah earlier this week against the driving campaign, blaming the U.S. as the mastermind behind the 26th protest.

Taking the Wheel

Growing up in Saudi, I regularly heard lectures from religious figures warning us girls of one thing or another, from how Western music would "corrupt our souls" to how riding a bicycle would "damage a girl's innocence" and take away her virginity, ruining the chance for a good marriage.

As a teenager, I rebelled against rules all the time. Several times my friends and I dressed up as Saudi men—donning the long white robe known as a kandoura or dishdasha and tying up our hair under the ghutra scarf—to try our hand at driving. My friends had many brothers, who in turn had many cars, including some luxurious sports models. We would simply pick one that had been replaced by a newer version and drive off in it without anyone noticing. We would stay within the vicinity of a residential area, avoiding main roads.

Thankfully, we were never caught, mostly I think because we made sure we acted boyish and rowdy in our male attire. Besides, there is an unfortunate tradition of males getting behind the wheel as young as 13, so we didn't really stand out for not having facial hair. We scratched and bumped the cars in places as we learned how to maneuver them, but no one seemed to notice, and if they did, they probably just blamed it on the boys in the family.

Emergency Response

I didn't realize that these moments of defiance would end up saving a life.

Many women in Saudi Arabia have faced emergencies when there was no man around to assume driving duties. In my case, it happened when my baby brother was having breathing difficulties at our residential compound in Jeddah.

It was a Friday, a weekend, and my father was on a business trip. This was before mobile phones, and the on-call doctor at our regular clinic was nowhere to be found. I can't describe the panic that overcame my mother as she clutched my brother and ran from door to door trying to find a male neighbor at a time of day when most were out. That image haunts me to this day.

Even though I felt confident behind the wheel, I wasn't a good driver. The decision was made for me, as my mother thrust the car keys into my hand and said: "Drive."

I drove my father's Audi across the compound, and then outside, shaking as I looked left, right, and center. I was about to make a left turn at one of the main roads when we recognized a couple in a car about to turn into our street. Without even asking, my mother jumped out of our car and into theirs with the baby, leaving me, and my little sister in the back, confused over what was happening.

This was my introduction to how every other woman who is not allowed to drive must feel when faced with an emergency: helpless and fearful of what might happen if she is caught.

Every time I go to Saudi Arabia, I am reminded that driving is a privilege. I feel too old to have to wait for my father or the driver to take me out.

Thanks to the courage of Saudi women—and some Saudi men—there is hope that this will soon change.

(See "Trail Notes: Billi Cowgirls.")

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