Saudi Arabia is a distinctive country. One of the distinctions it enjoys is being the only country in the world that forbids women driving. While women were driving in Europe in the 1890s, in 2011 for a Saudi woman to take the wheel is an act of defiance.
It has been carefully explained that in fact there is no law against women driving in the kingdom. There is simply a ban on issuing driver’s licenses to women. Nor are foreign or international licenses valid for women in Saudi Arabia. The government position appears to be, women driving is not illegal, it’s just legally impossible.
It has also been observed that the ban is not air-tight: a few women do drive in rural areas (presumably because the long arm of the Commission on the Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue isn’t long enough), as well as inside compounds such as universities. But being able to get away with it in exceptional circumstances doesn’t change the essential fact that the government infantilizes Saudi women when it comes to the car keys.
But the ferment sometimes called the Arab Spring could not bypass Saudi society. Many Saudi women have traveled or been educated abroad. Facebook and Twitter are as common there as anywhere else. Modernity presses in on the kingdom.
Thus, a number of Saudi Facebook groups with names like “Women2Drive” and “Women’s Right to Drive in KSA” sprang up to call for a day of women driving on June 17. These groups quickly got thousands of internet supporters.
On the 17th, however, actual turnout was light. Local media proclaimed the protest a failure. Saudi authorities claimed that “no one showed up” and there were no arrests, but if that was true (and it may not be), it was because the decision was made to tread lightly and simply issue citations. Maha al-Gahtani reported on Twitter: “I drove with my husband, and a policeman stopped me and gave me a ticket, which stated that I was driving without a license. I was disappointed that I didn’t see any other women drivers.” An estimated 40 women took to the streets.
The fact that two women were arrested in May for driving was probably sufficient discouragement for many would-be motorists. In addition, the day before the scheduled protest four or six women were arrested in the desert near Riyadh when their husbands tried to teach them to drive. “They were learning to drive in case of emergencies, they weren’t doing it to challenge society or in response to any calls for such a thing,” a source said. So there may have been no arrests on June 17, but that doesn’t mean that no women drivers were arrested at all.
Not everyone in the kingdom cheered on the demonstrators. For example, Mariam Alawi has an American license, but Reuters quoted her as saying: “I think the campaign to defy the driving ban will hinder the process of legalising women driving in Saudi Arabia because it will just provoke the authorities.” A woman wrote a letter to the Saudi Gazette that firmly rejected the idea that she should be allowed to drive:
Many females in the Kingdom are only concerned about one thing — women driving. They are not able to think about future [sic]. If a woman drives and meets with an accident or has any other problem with her car, where can she turn to for help?
From strangers who she does not know? How can she be sure that they will not misuse the situation? As a woman, I am with the Saudi government. They know what they are doing and what is good for the country.
In addition, a group of men announced their intention to look out for women drivers and report them to the police. Said one: “Those women are going against Shariah and the Supreme Council of Senior Religious Scholars, and we are going to do anything to keep them off the streets.”
But the women drivers had international support. The members of the theatrically-inclined Ukrainian feminist group Femen did their usual bare-breasted demonstration, this time at the Saudi embassy in Kiev. But they covered their faces, Saudi style. The Hindu pointed out the absurdity of the ban on its own terms of protecting women from mingling with men. Allowing women to drive would reduce gender-mixing, “as it reduces dependence on non-family male drivers.”
But Saudi activists pointedly asked U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, “Where are you? We write to express our deep concern over the US government’s public silence on the issue of Saudi women’s right to drive.” A Clinton spokeswoman said that the Secretary was engaged in “quiet diplomacy.” Another anonymous State Department official, said, somewhat more candidly, that in the progress of liberalization in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia would be “the last stop on the train, because it is a very conservative society.”
We’ll see. A movement may be small and flicker out, or begin small and grow into an irresistible force. Saudi activist Wajiha al-Huweider predicted: “It is not a one-day thing or a demonstration, it is the first day of a movement that will continue until we see a new law to allow women to drive.”