In four days’ time, women in Saudi Arabia will be able to drive for the first time in 60 years. It’s a victory for equality, but there’s still some distance to go
On 22 May 2011, Manal al-Sharif was at home with her five-year-old son and brother when there was a knock on the door at 2am. It was Saudi Arabia’s secret police, and they had come to take her away. Al-Sharif was terrified, yet she had no choice but to go with them. Back then it never occurred to her that she could be kept in a cell for nine days, stripped of her human rights and labelled a traitor and a spy. But that’s exactly what happened, all while her young son was left wondering where his mother had gone. Her crime? Getting behind the wheel of a car.
Since 1957, it has been illegal for women to drive in Saudi Arabia. Then, last September, the government agreed to allow women to apply for driving licences. The ban will lift this Sunday (24 June), and Saudi women will finally be able to get in the driver’s seat once more.
For women like al-Sharif, this could not come soon enough. She was jailed seven years ago for driving her brother’s car while he sat in the passenger seat – an act she filmed as part of the country’s Women2Drive campaign – and was forced to sign papers promising never to drive on Saudi lands again. Protesters like al-Sharif have campaigned tirelessly for this change for decades. Back in 1990, 47 women famously protested by driving around the capital Riyadh in convoy. They were arrested, had their passports confiscated and were fired from their jobs. Mosques denounced them as “immoral women” and many went into isolation for their safety.
Today, one of the most famous activists is Loujain al-Hathloul. She joined Saudi Arabia’s Women2Drive campaign while studying in Canada and returned to her home country to protest the ban in person. One of her stunts – hiring a car in the United Arab Emirates and attempting to cross the border into Saudi Arabia in December 2014 – led to her being detained for 73 days as the criminal courts couldn’t decide whether she should be charged under terrorism laws for undermining national security.
When she was released, her punishment continued – this time by members of the public. “Many still accuse me of infringing on the laws and distorting the public image of my country,” she says. “People go as far as accusing me of treason and saying that I deserve the most extreme punishments based on speculations with no solid evidence.”
And yet, in September 2017, al-Hathloul’s campaigning finally paid off. The Saudi royal family agreed to allow women to drive, explaining that Saudi society was now “ready” for the change. Al-Hathloul should have spent these past few months celebrating her campaign’s victory and applying for her licence. But instead, she and five other women’s rights defenders have been detained by the government. Their crimes are unclear – they have been accused of being “traitors” and if charged, could face up to 20 years in prison – but human rights experts believe they are there simply for demanding the right to drive, and while some activists have been ‘temporarily released’, there is no way of knowing when they will all be freed.
It is an uncomfortable juxtaposition that sends mixed signals to both the outside world and the people of Saudi Arabia. “On one hand, the authorities are enabling freedoms for women, but on the other, they’re imprisoning women’s rights activists,” says Samah Hadid, Amnesty International’s Middle East director of campaigns. “The message the government is sending out is they will not tolerate dissent or any form of activism. They will not tolerate human rights being campaigned for in the country – which is in direct contradiction to the PR campaign they’ve launched where they’ve tried to promote themselves as reformers. Instead they’re imprisoning reformers.”
Sceptics such as Hadid believe the government lifted the ban to improve the image of the Saudi royal family. Mona Tajali, a professor of international relations and women’s studies at Agnes Scott College in Atlanta, Georgia, agrees that international pressure was important in convincing the newer, more moderate, forces in Saudi Arabia – mainly Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. The Crown Prince, as heir apparent, is second only to his father King Salman.
The driving ban has, in many ways, also proved a source of embarrassment for Saudi Arabia. One male academic, Professor Kamal al-Subhi, was widely ridiculed after publishing ‘scientific’ research claiming that women are so “small-minded” they will become “immoral” if given the freedom to drive. While one Saudi cleric, Saad al-Hijri, claimed women’s intellect shrunk when they went shopping thus impacting their driving skills. Others have argued that driving could affect a woman’s ovaries and threaten her ability to have healthy children.
Their arguments are laughable – especially against the strong logic of female campaigners who pointed out basic economic truths: if women can drive, they will have enhanced access to employment, which will in turn have a direct effect on the country’s economy. “Given the high levels of women’s education, it is also of great benefit to the regime to have more women active within the public sphere,” explains Tajali.
For Saudi women, one of the biggest issues with not being able to drive wasn’t just the lack of independence, it was the sheer expense and inconvenience of having to pay for chauffeurs or waiting for a male guardian (typically a relative) to drive them to work, school or social events.
Reema al-Mahlasi, 30, is a medical technologist who lives with her parents and four sisters in Riyadh. “Me, my mum and sisters all work in different parts of the city,” she explains. “We had to have three drivers to manage arriving and leaving on time, which was a financial burden. Almost everything needed prior planning with the family, and there was no chance of doing anything spontaneous. Emotionally, it was frustrating because so much basic stuff couldn’t be done easily.”
Al-Mahlasi was one of the first women to apply for training in a driving school, and has already passed her test. There are several driving schools catering for women in the country now, with hundreds believed to have already passed. Al-Mahlasi is now waiting for 24 June to officially have her licence. “I am so, so excited,” she says. “When they announced they’d lifted the ban, my sisters and I were jumping and crying with joy. It was historic.
“When I told my parents I was going to have the lessons, they were supportive, but also hesitant. They were worried I could be in danger from people who are against women driving.” Potential violence against the new wave of female drivers is a huge concern. And it’s not just men who are hostile to women driving – there are also many more conservative women who are averse to the move. The government has assured women that anyone who assaults a female driver will be punished under a new harassment law. But many women are still scared to get behind the wheel.
For Shahd Alzhrani, 24, the lifting of the ban is life-changing. She comes from a large conservative family and cannot go outside without a male companion, which means everything from doing a food shop to going to work is a daily challenge. She has even lost out on jobs after being unable to make the interviews and often puts herself in danger by piling into a five-person car with seven other women just so they can get out and about.
“Life wasn’t just hard, it was total misery,” she says. “It felt as though your legs weren’t your own, and you had to wait until you were told when and where you could use them.”
She has been campaigning for a change in the law for many years and has been called a “devil worshipper” and told she had been “brainwashed” by the internet. But in recent years, she says things have slowly started to change. “People are more accepting, and the majority are in favour of women driving.”
While attitudes may be changing, the law is far from perfect. For a start, driving lessons for women are significantly more expensive than they are for men (although the cost of the licence itself is the same). Dr Abdulhameed Al-Mejel, head of the Saudi Society for Traffic Safety, has said that driving lessons for women cost between SR2,000 and SR3,000 (£400- £600), compared to SR450 (£90) for men. It is allegedly because female driving schools have more facilities and comprehensive training.
“This means women are training each other, and some are trained from home by family members,” explains Alzhrani. “But, right now, we are still positive there will be change, and the law will hopefully soon be the same for everyone.”
The biggest issue ahead is reaching overall equality. Saudi law enforces a strict form of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism, known for its gender segregation laws. While the driving ban has been lifted, Saudi women must still adhere to strict dress codes where their heads are covered, they must not associate with unrelated men, and under the guardianship system they must have the permission of – or be accompanied by – a male guardian if they want to travel, work or access healthcare.
While many women are overjoyed the driving ban has been overturned, they know the country has a long way to go in terms of equality. Now, the biggest obstacle is guardianship. “They need to overturn this guardianship system that doesn’t allow women to enter the workplace, gain an education or marry who they choose without the permission of a male guardian,” says Hadid. “If the kingdom wants to bill themselves as reformers, then they need to reform.”
The women of Saudi Arabia agree. “I wish they’ll be demolished as soon as possible,” says al-Mahlasi, who is hopeful that the driving ban will swiftly pave the way for more changes. “I’m hoping that soon the world will stop talking about driving and start talking about the guardianship laws. That’s the change we need to see next.”