On Saudi driving rows, reform, and women’s rights

In commemoration of International Women's Day last year, Saudi women's rights activist Wajeha Al-Huwaider posted a video of herself driving on the popular video-sharing site YouTube in a bid to pressure the Saudi authorities to grant women in the Kingdom the right to drive. MENASSAT met with pioneer "driving activist" Su'ad al-Mana in Riyadh to discuss driving bans and women's rights in Saudi.
Saudi Arabia remains the only country in the world where women are officially banned from driving.

RIYADH, April 06, 2009 (MENASSAT) - "For women, to drive is not a political issue. It is not a religious issue. It is a social issue. And we know that many women of our society are capable of driving cars. We also know that many families will allow their women to drive,” said women’s rights activist Wajeha Al-Huwaider in a video appealing to Saudi interior minister Prince Nayef bin Abdel Aziz to allow women to drive in the Kingdom.

Saudi Arabia has come under constant criticism from rights groups for its treatment of women. Under Saudi law, women must obtain a man’s permission in order to travel or have surgery. The Kingdom remains the only country in the world where women are officially banned from driving.

The last time women publicly challenged the Saudi authorities over the driving ban was on November 6 1990, when a group of 45 women demanded their drivers hand over the car keys and drove through Riyadh. The women ended up getting arrested by the religious police and the planned action resulted in a fatwa, a religious ruling from the highest ranking cleric in the Kingdom, officially prohibiting women from driving in Saudi cities.

“A clear message”

The timing of the driving row was crucial, taking place during the lead-up to the Gulf war when there was an international media focus on Saudi Arabia. The women wanted their public demonstration to put pressure on society and on the national authorities to change the law and allow Saudi women to drive.

“It was a clear message we sent. I didn’t drive just for the fun of it. It was the time of war and we should have been able to drive if we needed to,” pioneer Saudi “driving activist” Su’ad al-Mana, who was involved in the driving row, told MENASSAT.

Al-Mana remembers the day of the driving row in detail.

“We met at the Tamimi (a well-known supermarket in Saudi Arabia) parking lot. All together we were 45 women and 15 cars. So we asked our drivers to park the cars and told them to get out of the drivers seat and give us the keys to the car. They were astonished,” Al-Mana said with a giggle.

The guerilla drivers, who all possessed driving licenses issued from abroad, divided themselves into groups of three or four in each car and drove along Riyadh’s long dusty boulevards before gathering back in the supermarket parking lot.

Steering her dark blue Cabris onto the lot, content over the fact that she hadn’t been caught by the police, Al-Mana was greeted by a fellow driving female friend who cheerfully told her that the group had not completed its mission. They were supposed to drive two laps around town, she said, not just one.


It was during that second lap that things went bad.

According to Al-Mana’s account, the group was first stopped by a couple of police officers who did not know how to respond when the women flashed their driving licenses before them. But at a crosswalk further ahead, the caravan finally attracted the attention of Saudi's religious police, the “Muttawa.”

“They (the Muttawa) came and stopped our cars, violently. The women drivers were immediately ordered into the backseats with a representative from the Muttawa to drive the cars,” said Al-Mana.

She specifically recalled the Muttawa officer who told Al-Mana that her and her friends would ruin Riyadh.

“He was a young and ugly man. He didn’t know how to speak in a polite manner. He told us that these women would spoil everyone in Riyadh,” she said.

Al-Mana then remembers being transferred to a local police station with the rest of the women where they were held together in a small room until 3am the next morning when their male guardians were summoned to retrieve them.

Before leaving the police station, Al-Mana said that they were forced to sign a paper stating that they “would not do the same thing again.”

Criticism and expulsion

Although a media blackout on the driving row had allegedly been ordered, the driving women of Riyadh soon became the talk of the town.

“There was lots of talk about us at the time in mosques and in the streets…. I just don’t understand it. Women have been riding camels for centuries. Why not cars?” said Al-Mana.

According to one report, posters condemning the women’s actions, with their names listed, were plastered on the walls of Riyadh mosques.

Al-Mana was one of several Riyadh university professors who participated in the driving demonstration.

In her interview with MENASSAT, Al-Mana discussed the response to their public action and change in Saudi.

MENASSAT: How did the public respond to the driving row?

Al-Mana: "A few days after the row, I was called by my dean, who advised me not go to university to teach anymore. I thrown back by the phone call, but was also surprised by the reactions coming from some of the students."

"The girls started demonstrating and distributing leaflets.”

MENASSAT: They were demonstrating against you?

Al-Mana: “Yes, they were against us, us drivers. They said that ‘if you drive, it’s the first step towards bad things.’"

MENASSAT: Why do you think they reacted in that way?

“Somebody stuffed their minds.”

MENASSAT: So 19 years after your public demonstration, when do you think you will be granted the right to drive in your country?

“You know, in 1990 I thought we would be able to drive within five year. But here in Saudi things are different than anywhere else in the world.”

MENASSAT: “So if we come back here in 19 years again, do you think you will be driving then”?

(Laugh). “I can’t predict and don’t like to predict these things. Things are changeable but our customs will stay stable.

MENASSAT: But you feel things are changing in the Kingdom?

“Things are improving here. But change at the moment is stemming from things that are not important. Girls nowadays just repeat what they hear from society. Girls are thinking about what clothes to wear and what handbags to buy. In essence, they’re thinking about superficial things.”

Al-Mana and the other professors were subsequently laid off from work for 15 years. Their passports were confiscated by the Saudi authorities.

After the uproar had died down, the Saudi monarch at the time, King Fahd, reportedly gave the women back their passports then reinstated their teaching posts.

Over the past year, persistent rumors have surfaced that the Kingdom might soon be removing the driving ban on women drivers.

One report issued in February 2008 said that Saudi Arabia was to lift its ban on women drivers and that government officials had “confirmed the landmark decision” and planned to “issue a decree by the end of the year”.

While Al-Mana thinks the driving ban constitutes a problem, she appears far more concerned about education and teaching young Saudi women to “learn how to think for themselves” than not being able to drive a car.

Many Saudi girls these days, complains Al-Mana, go to university only to be able to say that they have a degree and not to become critical thinkers, spurring close-mindedness among the young, she says.

Reform hopes and mixed signals

Recent developments in Saudi Arabia that appear to be aimed at reforming Saudi’s hard-line religious establishment raised hopes of a potential reform taking place.

On Valentine’s Day, a day when media coverage of Saudi Arabia often focuses on the banning of red roses and clamping down on couples celebrating, this year the focus  on a highly-publicized reshuffle in the Saudi government.

The Saudi monarch, King Abdullah dismissed the head of the religious police and removed a controversial hard-line cleric who declared last fall that it was permissible to kill the owners of television stations that broadcast immoral content.

Of particular interest was King Abdullah’s appointment of a woman as a deputy cabinet minister.

Prominent technocrat Noura Al-Fayez was chosen to head girls’ education in the Kingdom, marking Saudi’s first female minister.

But a number of new controversial developments have made Saudi intellectuals voice concern over the notion of “mixed signals” being given in the reform process.

Last week, Saudi’s National Society of Human Rights (NSHR) published its second report on human rights in the Kingdom, in which the organization pointed piercing criticism towards several government agencies for not protecting human rights. The report also urged the need for better promotion of women’s rights in Saudi.

But only a few days after the release of the report, Saudi Interior Minister Prince Naif publicly declared that there is no need for female members in the Parliament or in the elections.

Following the remarks, King Abdullah appointed Prince Naif as second deputy premier, leaving room for yet more confusion about the Kingdom’s reform process.

The popular Saudi blogger “Saudijeans” referred to the recent developments as “confusing signals” about what’s going in his country.

"Now this is exactly the kind of mixed signals that makes the world question the commitment of our country to its much publicized reform plans, not to mention how it leaves the people confused about where their nation is heading. So what’s going on here? Frankly, I don’t get it. I. Just. Don’t. Get. It.,” Saudijeans wrote.