Being able to drive is so freeing. I remember walking out of the DMV only a few years ago, a passed permit test in one hand and the keys to my mom’s car in the other. For the first time, I would drive home.
It felt like such a long time coming for me, an impatient sixteen year old frustrated with the doldrums of high school, always perched somewhere on the edge of my seat so that I wouldn’t miss the next big adventure. I was independent and audacious, and finally I could act on that part of my personality. Another day of waiting would feel like forever. And now, having driven for about four years, nothing beats the sensation that comes with a full tank of gas.
I can’t imagine a world in which it was not just my age, economic status, or sheer driving ability preventing me from getting a license (fun fact: I failed my first driving test because I ran a stop sign). But, in at least one country, that is the reality, and my gender would’ve been not just a reason, but the reason that I couldn’t get my license.
Saudi Arabia is unique in that it is the only place where women are prohibited from driving. But a group called Women2Drive is “taking the wheel” of freedom anyway (I recently listened to “Jesus, Take The Wheel,” that celebrated Carrie Underwood hit, and I really wanted to do a spin on that for this sentence but it turned out pretty awkward and half-baked, so I apologize).
For at least a decade, women living in Saudi Arabia must acquire signed permission from a mahram, or close male relative, before she can travel, even if that travel is within her own country. This is a fairly difficult legislation to enforce, and so most women do leave the house alone and interact with men unrelated to them, though many of these women have faced severe consequences. In a similar manner, a woman driving is tolerated in rural areas, but only because it is more often the case in these regions that the survival of their families depends on them alone.
Though the law doesn’t specifically dictate that women cannot drive, drivers in Saudi Arabia must have local licenses, and these licenses are not issued to women, effectively prohibiting them from driving.
Religious authorities have even called the act of women driving haram, a word translating to forbidden that represents the highest form of prohibition. If something is haram, it is not just against the rules; it is sacrilegious. Some commonly cited reasons for this classification is that driving a car would require women’s faces to be uncovered, more women on the road would cause congestion, depriving men from the opportunity to drive, and it would be the first step in a disintegration of traditional values, specifically gender-based segregation.
The movement by women for women to lift the ban on driving was first documented in 1990. On November 6th, about twenty Saudi women protested the ban by driving the streets of Riyadh, the capital city of Saudi Arabia. Some time into this protest, they were apprehended by traffic cops and taken into custody, released only after each had their mahram sign statements promising that they would never drive again.
But that was not the only consequence: thousands of leaflets with their full names printed next to gender-specific slurs were circulated throughout Riyadh, the women were suspended from their jobs, and they had their passports confiscated. Allegedly, their passports were returned about a year after the arrest and their jobs reinstated, but these women have been kept under surveillance and passed over for promotions ever since.
The next highly publicized event supporting the right to drive came in 2008 on International Women’s Day, which is celebrated every March 8th, when Saudi feminist activist Wajeha al-Huwaider uploaded a YouTube video of herself driving while simultaneously outlining her request for universal driving rights.
Al-Huwaider is a co-founder of The Association for the Protection and Defense of Women’s Rights in Saudi Arabia, which is just one of the reasons why her life and accomplishments are more than worthy of her own “She Deserves Credit;” a journalist, she has been banned from publishing several times, has presented a petition to King Abdullah advocating for an end to the ban on women drivers, and has campaigned against the mahram laws, all with great risk.
Though the original video was taken down soon after it was published, some clips and translations still exist online.* During the video, al-Huwaider drives through a rural area, which is more accepted and therefore less dangerous, but then fearlessly turns onto a highway without missing a beat.
Al-Huwaider helped with other women’s driving campaigns during the 2011 Saudi Arabian protests by filming Manal al-Sharif, another human rights activists, driving in Khobar, another large city in Saudi Arabia. Al-Sharif was arrested, and then released, and then arrested again the next day. She was finally released on bail later with the conditions that she not drive or talk to the press.
But instead, al-Sharif starred in her own TEDTalk.* She tweets regularly on the issues plaguing her country. She was even one of the women who started the Facebook campaign “Women2Drive,” a movement that called for women to start driving beginning June 17th, 2011.
There is still such a long way to go. It was only a month after the start of Women2Drive’s campaign that Shaima Jastania was sentenced to ten lashes for driving a car in the city of Jeddah. King Abdullah pardoned Jastania, but the powerful and conservative Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz has overturned King Abdullah’s pardon. And yet, since 2011, many women drove anyway, challenging the archaic traditions that oppress them.
These women deserve credit not because they have been able to change the laws of their country. In fact, they haven’t been able to—not yet, anyway. What these women deserve credit for is for trying. When someone acts with courage, it’s not that they aren’t afraid. They are often very, very afraid; the difference is that they don’t let that stop them. The women of Women2Drive and other human’s rights activists all over the world have tested their strength, tested their courage, and have come out stronger and more powerful. With each attempt, each fraction of publicity and awareness gained, we get closer to stop wondering when everyone will have the rights they deserve, and start acting to make sure that they do.
*Watch Wajeha al-Hywaider’s video here and Manal al-Sharif’s TedTalk here.