Women Driving in Saudi Arabia

Abby Rolland

According to Al Arabiya News and Agence France Presse, Saudi Arabian women are preparing to drive on October 26th, the anniversary of the driving protest from last year.[1] A ban prohibits Saudi women from getting behind the wheel, with Saudi Arabia being the only known country to have that prohibition. Last year, at least sixteen women were fined for driving. This year, an online petition has attracted over 2,400 signatures as of October 9 while activists encourage women to use the Twitter hash tag #IWillDriveMyself and to post pictures of themselves driving on FaceBook and Instagram when they drive. Hala Al-Dawsari, a member of the campaign, told Al-Hayat daily that the constant campaigning should lead to one of two things: the lifting of the ban or a good explanation of why women are not allowed to drive.[2]

In conservative Saudi society, gender equality is lacking. According to the Gender Inequality Index, Saudi Arabia is ranked 135th out of 146 countries.[3] It seems like Saudi Arabia is slowly moving in the direction of giving women more rights, as noted by King Abdullah’s decision that women will be able to run in the 2015 local elections, but reform is slow.[4] The driving ban does not come directly from the Qur’an, but from the strict Sunni form known as Salaf (religious predecessors), which is mostly unwritten and gives judges a large amount of discretionary power (they normally rule in favor of tribal customs).[5] Some women do support keeping the status quo – in 2008, Rowdha Youself and other Saudi women launched a petition called “My Guardian Knows What’s Best for Me,” which gathered over 5,000 signatures, while other activists argue that bans such as the driving one and others demean women.[6]

As early as 1990, Saudi women were illegally driving in the streets in order to protest the ban. Now, it remains to be seen whether or not the continued protests against the driving ban will work. King Abdullah would like to modernize the country but needs to listen to Wahhabi traditionalists before he makes the politically risky move.[7] Many believe that women driving could erode traditional values and lead to a Western-style openness. It will be interesting to see the impact of the driving protests on October 26th and if an increasing amount of women demanding for this right to drive will foster change in Saudi Arabia.