International Women's Issues

Saudi Women Get Behind the Wheel

Imagine living in a country where you were not allowed to get behind the wheel of a car. Even further, you were banned from taking public transport because the segregation of the sexes made it immoral to be jammed into a hot bus next to your male compatriots. No, to get around you either needed a male member of your family or a professional driver to cart you to and from work. Well, for millions of women living in Saudi Arabia, this is just everyday life. 

However, Saudi Arabian women seem to have grown weary of the constant inconvenience. In this new world where cellphones give instant access, and YouTube clips are passed around like wildfire, the women of the Middle East have been branching out considerably within their communities. From Syria to Yemen, ladies have been taking part in revolutions, government, and have come to expect a certain amount of professional courtesy be paid their way. Saudi Arabian women are no different, despite an old fatwa (religious ruling) that archaically pronounce women unfit for the road.

Women have been battling this on all fronts for nearly 20 years. In November of 1990, 47 women got in 15 cars and drove in circles around Riyadh before the police arrested them. The women were then subject to harsh cultural crackdowns, with their families losing their jobs, and the government even restricting their ability to travel outside of the country.

Women have also been dealing with this impossible obstacle on the intellectual level. In fact, it was even debated at one point that the fatwa against women drivers ran in contradiction to a popular Hadith (sayings of the prophet Mohammad). Some women (and men) argued that because Mohammad was once heard saying that the women should have or be taught how to use horses so they can also protect and seek help should their town come under attack. This was interpreted into modern life as women having a right to independent transportation at all times. Something that isn’t even up for debate by 99.9% of the Muslim world.

However Saudi Arabia has remained steadfast in its decisions. So in waltzes a woman named Manal al Sharif who recently posted a YouTube video of her driving around. She explains, as she drives, that not every Saudi family can afford a driver, and what if the husband keels over from a heart attack? It is ridiculous that a woman would not be allowed to protect her family in this way. Of course, to normal reasonable humans, all these arguments make perfect logical sense. But Sharif was still arrested twice over the weekend for defying the ban. Clearly the government is sending the message that her level of tomfoolery will not be accepted.

Which will make it difficult for the Kingdom as it seems You/tube videos of Saudi women driving has kind of become a bit of a thing. Here you can see a woman driving around the streets of Saudi Arabia during the nighttime and there are links in the side bar to numerous similar videos in which some women very carefully roll around their neighborhood, and some women wheel out into the city with an attitude that has seemingly stopped caring about the consequences.

A Facebook page has also been constructed which is called Women2Drive and is encouraging women across Saudi Arabia to take to their family vehicles on June 17th and defy the archaic fatwa. It should also be noted that numerous men are in support of this event. For them, it is incredibly annoying to have to drive around their perfectly competent, intelligent sisters, wives and daughters when they could so easily learn and take care of it themselves. Rather these men are stuck at the service of all their families’ transportation needs. Either that or provide with expensive drivers who are still men, but because they are foreign workers, somehow make the idea of immorality laughable.

Change is coming slowly to Saudi Arabia, and for the women who are too often stuck inside their homes, it’s about time it sped up. It is likely that the future holds similar arrests for these women, who, much like those in November of 1990, will face a bullshit public scandal and the Arabian peninsula’s specialized version of pearl clutching. But hopefully these women will persevere and be able to do what so many of us take for granted every day. Have the freedom of movement, which is really only an extension of having the freedom to choose their futures.

By Olivia Marudan

Cad. Boondoggler. Swindler. Ass. Plagiarist. Hutcher. A movable feast in the subtle culinary art of shit talking.

3 replies on “Saudi Women Get Behind the Wheel”

I heard her story on NPR the other day as I was driving in my car, lamenting that I was stuck in rush hour traffic. Her courage and story was a necessary “check yourself” moment for me. I have the freedom to drive, to whine, and to correct my thinking.

More power to these mobile women.

I hear about this woman a few days ago. More power to her and all the best.

This is sort of off hand, but I heard a great radio program with Stephen Lewis at the end of last year, where he was answering questions about HIV and immigration. A woman called in and said that she didn’t think Canada should let in immigrants and refugees with HIV and we should look to Saudi Arabia as an example as they have strict entry laws. Lewis, who is an outstanding speaker and a very patient man, really reached a breaking point and laid it on the line. “Ma’am. Saudi Arabia is a country where you would not be allowed behind the wheel of a car because of your gender. It is not the place to be taking our cues on human rights from.” It was pretty beautiful

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