An account of a struggle for greater freedom and rights for women in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia is governed by a monarchy, with the Qur’an as the constitutional center of the country, and Sharia Islamic law as the primary method of governance. Sharia law places many restrictions on women and women’s rights; women must have a male guardian, such as a brother, father, or husband, who has control over much of the female’s freedom of choice.
The mutaween is a contingent of religious police in Saudi Arabia, specifically charged with the task of overseeing and enforcing Sharia law. The mutaween are employed by the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, (or the CPVPV), a government bureaucracy, and consist of some 3,500 members as well as volunteers. Their task is to patrol the streets and social institutions and make sure that citizens are abiding by Sharia. These forces have been widely criticized, both domestically and by international parties, because of reported violence against women and girls and as a result of the power they hold in society.
There is very little freedom of movement for women. While there is no formal law stating that women cannot drive, it is considered publicly and socially taboo; women rarely use public transportation, and are generally prohibited from driving, with some exceptions in rural areas and on private property and residential compounds. In a strictly gender segregated society, many religious scholars uphold the ban on the grounds that it is immoral under Sharia law. For example, they argue that women would have to uncover their faces to drive, and it is obligatory for women to remain covered in public. They also consider it dangerous for women to leave the house more frequently, and argue that driving would bring them into contact with males who aren’t part of their families. Others worry about the erosion of traditional Islamic values that could result. Still, in the past few years more scholars—religious and otherwise—have questioned the ban, counter-arguing that it has very little basis in Sharia law. Those who question the driving law include females and males. Women of a wide spectrum of ages and social positions have expressed frustration with the ban, and with the lack of freedom more generally.
In 1990, a group of forty-seven prominent women, mainly from the upper, educated classes of Saudi society, initiated a protest of the driving ban. They drove down the main street of the capital, Riyadh, in a convoy. After about half an hour of driving, they were apprehended by the mutaween and arrested, as well as condemned by the government. The government prohibited them from holding jobs for two years following the incident. However, their actions prompted much debate and controversy within Saudi society over the lawfulness of the driving ban. This initial action was one inspiration for the women who later catalyzed the 2007 campaign.
In 2007, Wajeha al-Huwaider and Fouzia al-Ayouni founded an organization called the Association for the Protection and Defense of Women’s Rights in Saudi Arabia. The Association is not formally recognized as an NGO by the government, however, and is banned from demonstrating. The overarching goals of the organization are to give women a voice in Saudi society, with the hopes of furthering women’s rights. The founders decided that the organization would establish various leagues to tackle specific issues, like women’s health, education, marriage laws, and transportation and driving rights. Within this organizational framework, they created the League of Demanders of Women’s Rights to Drive Cars. This became the force behind Saudi women’s campaign to lift the driving ban.
In September 2007, the League began circulating a petition directed at the Saudi government under King Abdallah Bin Abd Al-Aziz Al Saud. The petition asserted that women should be given the right of freedom of movement, in the interest of more comprehensively developing society. The League stated that the petition would be circulated and presented to King Abdallah on National Day during the Muslim holiday of Ramadan, the 23rd of September.
Initially, the petition (which began circulation around September 4th), did not receive many signatures. However, on September 20th, news of the petition was published on Aafaq, a liberal Arab news site. Immediately, the campaign was picked up by international news services like the Associated Press, the Washington Post, and the BBC. Once publicity became more widely propagated, more people signed it, eventually reaching 1,100 signatures. As promised, the Association presented the petition to the king. However, the government made no move to accommodate the women’s demands or acknowledge the petition at all.
When progress of the petition seemed to be going nowhere, the women of the League initiated several driving protests; they intentionally drove on public roads, and several were arrested. Women posted videos and blog entries on the internet in efforts to vocalize their campaign goals, and achieve international solidarity. Eventually, facing mounting pressure primarily in the form of bloggers and journalists that generated international criticism, the government released a statement in January 2008 that it would make moves to lift the ban on women drivers by the following year. No concrete promises were announced, however, and the government never followed up on its assurances.
While the initial campaign of the League did not materialize, the campaign would reenergize several months later when al-Huwaider and other women resumed driving in defiance of the law, and posting videos on various internet sites. International awareness continued as well, as several outside news outlets continue to follow the story of the women. The government of Saudi Arabia has still not lifted the ban on driving, though it has made more recent announcements that it might be amenable to a change of the law in the future.
A 1990 campaign by several prominent Saudi women, while ultimately unsuccessful, served as inspiration to the later campaigners (1).
The Association for the Protection and Defense of Women’s Rights has begun more recent campaigns for women's right to drive
Aafaq.org. “Saudi Women Renew Their Demand for the Right to Drive.” (February 6, 2008): http://www.aafaq.org/english/aafaq_today.aspx?id_news=116.
Al-Huwaider, Wajeha. “Saudi Feminist Wajeha Al-Huwaider: The Campaign for Women’s Right to Drive in Saudi Arabia is Just the Beginning.” The Middle East Media Research Institute (September 21, 2007): www.memri.org.
BBC news archives online, Middle East: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world/middle_east/
Saudi Arabia Country Profile http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/country_profiles/791936.stm
Hardy, Roger. “Saudi Scholars Back Women Drivers.” BBC online (Feb. 21, 2008).
“Saudi Women make video protest.” BBC online (March 11, 2008).
Cope, Dorian. “6th November, 1990: The Women “Drivers” of Saudi Arabia.” On This Deity blog: http://www.onthisdeity.com/6th-november-1990-–%C2%A0the-women-drivers-of-saudi-arabia/
Judd, Terri. “Saudi women to put their foot down on driving ban.” The Independent: World section (September 14, 2007).
Since the 2007—early 2008 campaign, the Association has initiated several other campaigns for women’s right to drive. See Sources for direction to further information about the ensuing actions.
Edited by Max Rennebohm (06/06/2011)
Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy:
Samia Abbass, 29/11/2010
Published for the Global Nonviolent Action Database