Last week, two Saudi Arabian women were finally let out of jail. The crime for which they’d been imprisoned? — driving-while-female.
FREEDOM TOOLS: CAR KEYS AND COMPUTER SKILLS
On November 30, 2014, Loujain al-Hathloul, a 25-year-old Saudi women’s rights activist, made a 19-second video of herself behind the wheel in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where she had obtained a legal driver’s license. She was stopped when she attempted to drive across the border into Saudi Arabia.
Guards confiscated Hathloul’s passport and forced her to remain in her car overnight on the UAE side of the border. She communicated with friends that she was cold, tired, and hungry. When television journalist Maysa al-Amoudi came to her aid, she, too, was detained. Eventually, both women were ordered to drive their cars through the checkpoint, into Saudi Arabia, and pull over. When they did, they were arrested and taken to the Bureau of Interrogation and Prosecution in the city of Hofuf.
The women were held for two months in separate detention facilities. Their case was turned over to a special tribunal on “terrorism,” which examined the women’s extensive use of social media. Hathloul had over 232,000 followers on Twitter, and her husband, Fahad Albutairi, a popular comedian, rallied support of his 1.6 million Twitter fans. His satirical music video, “No Woman, No Drive,” (see below), a take-off on Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry,” was a favorite rebuke to Muslim clerics, who maintain that driving would damage a woman’s ovaries.
The release of Hathloul and Amoudi came shortly after Prince Charles met with Saudi Arabia’s newly crowned King Salman. It is not yet clear what conditions were placed on their release or whether there are charges pending.
25 YEARS IN THE STRUGGLE
Women in Saudi Arabia have a high rate of literacy, are afforded access to advanced education, use social media more than their sisters in the U.S., and are respected in their professional work as doctors, teachers, and businesswomen.
On the other hand, they continue to live under a system of male guardianship.
Considered a key ally by the U.S., Saudi Arabia consistently ranks at the bottom of the list of nations for women’s rights and is the only nation on earth to deny women the right to drive. There are no specific laws prohibiting women from driving, but a religious edict denies the issuing of licenses to women. Moreover, the monarchy bans public protest.
1990: In Riyadh, on November 6, 1990, after seeing American women GI’s driving, almost 50 prominent Saudi women took to the wheel in defiance of the prohibition. Many were professors or businesswomen. They knew they would be stopped and reprimanded, but believed that their protest was an important step in raising public awareness. After their action, some were called whores. Others received death threats. Their passports were confiscated. Several lost their jobs or were denied promotions.
2005: Fifteen years later, they held a reunion and wore T-shirts stamped “NOV. 6, 1990.” The women were encouraged because Mohammad al-Zulfa, a retired history professor and member of the Shura Council, had proposed a study of the pros and cons of allowing women to drive. He’d told the press, “There’s nothing in our religion or society that bans women from driving. Women drove camels during the time of the Prophet and if he were around today his wives would be driving.”
2007: At a World Economic Forum press conference, Princess Lolwah Al-Faisal made headlines when she said women should be allowed to drive. This was the first time a member of the royal family had made such a statement.
Though her statement received hearty applause in Switzerland, it failed to persuade the many Saudi women back home who staunchly support the driving ban. They believe that driving is a symbol of Westernization, and would be a loss of status and privilege and a step toward women’s moral corruption.
Saudi driving activists counter those claims, pointing out the economic considerations: not all women can afford to hire drivers (it can cost up to a third of a woman’s salary), and waiting for a male relative to drive them is inconvenient. Further, the right to obtain a license and get behind the wheel is symbolic of the larger issues of women’s empowerment and equality, not only freedom of movement.
To complicate matters, driving restrictions do not apply to some Bedouin women. They live in remote areas where traffic police are scarce and have been driving for years. When Bedouin women encounter problems for driving, it is rarely a legal matter but one of sexual harassment.
2011: The “Saudi Women’s Driving Initiative” was announced for June 17, 2011. To generate support for that action, Manal Al-Sharif, in headscarf and black abaya, posted a videotape of herself driving on You-Tube and Facebook (see below). She had 600,000 views in just days.
She started a campaign called “Women2Drive.” Al-Sharif not only received death threats, but an unnamed source notified news outlets that she had died in a car crash. It wasn’t true.
The day of action raised the level of debate in Saudi Arabia and generated global support. Women in other countries videotaped themselves driving and posted their clips on the “Honk for Saudi Women” YouTube channel.
Shaima Jastaniah was one of the women arrested for an act of civil disobedience in 2011. She had learned to drive while studying in the United States and considered it a basic human right in modern times. She also believed that the prohibition had nothing to do with Islam and everything to do with patriarchal rule and control.
Several months after her arrest for driving, she was sentenced to be lashed for her crime. Her lawyers filed a petition for pardon. Jastaniah’s case became an international cause célèbre when The Atlantic published an article about her plight. She was pardoned and spared the whip, but she was also taken in for fingerprinting by the Jeddah Police Department and warned that next time she would be flogged.
2013: On October 26, 2013, approximately 60 women took to the wheel in Riyadh, Jeddah, and al-Ahsa, armed with licenses from other countries. Supportive friends video-documented their acts of civil disobedience.
Several women reported thumbs-up encouragement from male drivers, but others were stopped by the police and told to wait in their cars for male relatives to drive them home. Over 16,600 signatures in an online petition were compiled in a well-organized social media campaign for a lifting of the ban in Saudi Arabia, where Twitter has millions of users.
THE QUEEN’S SURREPTITIOUS SOLIDARITY
After the death of King Abdullah in January, 2015, a story surfaced about the time he’d visited Queen Elizabeth II back in 1998. The then-Crown Prince was treated to a tour of Balmoral, the Queen’s estate in Scotland.
He took his royal seat in the Land Rover, but was shocked when the Queen herself got behind the wheel. Showing off some quick moves she’d learned during World War II as a truck driver for the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service of the British Army, the Queen reportedly chatted with the terrified Crown Prince as she raced around the estate.
TO GO DEEPER
“Saudi Women’s Rights Campaigners ‘Freed from Prison’” on blog; Saudi Women Driving, February 12, 2015 (This is a whole blog devoted to the Saudi women’s driving campaign, with links to many articles.)
“Saudi Women Free After 73 Days in Jail” by Robert Mackey, The New York Times, Feb. 12, 2015
“Saudi Arabia Women Test Driving Bans” by Jason Burke, The Huffington Post, June 17, 2011
“Manal al-Sharif Defies the Saudi Arabian Driving Ban for Women” (1:21 minutes)
“Woman Drives, Major Side Effect: EMPOWERMENT (ovaries fine) Honk4SaudiWomen campaign” (2:35 minutes)
Satirical video, “No Woman, No Drive” by Fahad Albutairi, a popular comedian married to Loujain al-Hathloul