Saudi Arabia: The Women Who Dared to Drive

I’ve posted previously about the Saudi women who dared to drive on the streets of Riyadh in 1991.  I have since come to know a few of these women and their families.  They were kind enough to share some of the experiences which followed after their act.  To begin with, not only were all the women rounded up and arrested after this attempt, but any men in the vicinity watching the women on the streets were also rounded up, arrested and questioned.  The male family members of these women were arrested with most having to spend hours in the jail.

The women and their male family member(s) were questioned separately on the impetus why they chose to drove.  Of course interrogators wanted full information on these women, their positions, their family and what positions the male family members held.

All of the women who took to the streets were professional women from good established and well-known families.  The women also agreed among themselves that when they chose to drive they would all wear the hijjab and niqab.  One woman wanted to forego and drive with her head uncovered and she was overruled.

The passports of the women and for those who were married, the passports of their husbands, were confiscated.  The women were also prohibited from resuming their jobs or in the case of one woman, prohibited from returning to her studies.  In most cases, this was enforced for a two year period.  The women could not work, did not receive any pay or benefits.  The woman who was a student was prohibited from coming to her university classes.  Although an exception was made that she was eventually only allowed to come to the University in order to take exams but she could not participate in classes at all.

The men related to the women were placed under great pressure and observation.  They were routinely called and directed to come to the Interior Ministry for questioning.  Sometimes the questioning was direct and indicated a desire to keep abreast of their activities.  Other times the questioning was more obscure.  Regardless, noone refused to not make themselves available.

At the same time, the mosques, imams, scholars and sheiks publicly condemned the actions of the women and by default their families.  It was implied the families had no control over their women and needed to be taught a lesson.

After the two year period one man had his and his wife’s passport returned to him although not before a lecture on the need to control his wife.  What was his reaction after leaving the passport office?  He went directly to the airport and bought a ticket on the first available flight out of the country just to savor that feeling again of being in control and having freedom.

Now in analysis of the 1991 action, there are many Saudis who view what happened as a probe.  Let me explain…the belief is that the women who participated in the activity were in fact sanctioned to do so by certain members within the Saudi government with the endorsement of American officials in order to gage the reaction and effect of such an effort on the part of the Saudi woman.  If the reaction had not been so strongly negative initiatives would likely have been taken towards paving the way for women to drive in the Kingdom.  However the negative outcry illustrated that the time was not yet right for such a step to take place. So where does that leave us now and for today? Does it look as if women will be given the right to drive in Saudi Arabia? Or at least, officially be given the right to drive anywhere in the Kingdom like the men? In spite of King Abdullah’s positive talks and movements of reform, I personally doubt women driving will happen during his reign. Why you likely ask? The society and culture is still not ready. I think women driving would cause another chain reaction of chaos, outcry and outcast.

25 Responses

  1. I think if this attempt was a year or two after, the reaction might be different. I don’t think 1991 is a good timing specially in the gulf cause of the war. Any thoughts in this ?

    I personally believe that women will drive in the Saudi cities in the near future. I’m a supporter of women driving in KSA. I know many women even if women are allowed to drive, they’d never consider it. Also there are many who would go for it. BTW, 2 years ago there were a car race in Dubai , and the winner was a Saudi female.

  2. Given the conservatism of the Kingdom I’m not sure if a reaction would have been any different later than 1991… And believe me, I don’t want to sound like a pessimist but I think when taking a practical look at the customs and culture, this country is simply not prepared to have women drive (openly).

    I’m not surprised to hear that a Saudi female won a car race! There is no doubt that Saudi women are very talented and versatile. Because of restrictions we just don’t hear about them as routinely as accomplishments made by other women.

  3. It is ironic that in a society dominated by men, the best known peaceful civil discordance act was conducted by women. These ladies were courageus and should be considered heroes by all Saudis.

    Carol, thanks for remembering them with this post. Their sacrifice will pave the way for others and should not be forgotten.

    Regarding women driving, I am more optimistic than most. I think the plans will be announced before the end of the year. There are already roomers that they initial plan has been through the Shurra council. Al Alarabiya web site actually publish the details the pulled teh article out a few hours later. I think the council of ministers will approve it soon. Implementation may take a year or 2.

    The reason I think this will happen soon is that Saudi has grand plans which includes joining the World Trade Organization (WTO). Women driving along with other civil rights requirements are issues that need to be taken care of to achieve these plans. There are other indicators which point to progress along these lines like the creation of the Human Rights Organization and the new change in labor law to allow mixed work environments.

  4. Saudi in US – I am glad of your optimism and wish I shared it as strongly as you. What you say are good and positive indicators and I do hope they come to a timely fruition.

    You’re right – these women were indeed so well-organized and did conduct a careful and peaceful act. While I agree with you on their courage and that they should be viewed as heros, at the time of the incident, you would have thought there were all wearing a searing Scarlett “S” on their foreheads for what they had done.

  5. Carol,

    Conservatism has always been a powerful force in Saudi. However, economics can be the area that is able to over ride it. Saudis know the value of money. People asking for change is usually not enough.

    Saudi is setting it’s site on becoming a world leader in more sophisticated industries. These are petrochemical based of course, but are not at the traditional commodity level as we move to manufactured goods. These new industies will require change in trading practices.

    Joining the WTO which was achieved at the end of 2005 required many reforms. For the country to achieve a status as a leading trading partner to European Countries it must show progress on civil rights issues. This is why you suddenly see Saudi accepting to present to the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women this January. Obviously the presentation did not go well, but it was seen as a positive step that Saudi did it for first time. I think the next round won’t be so kind to the reputation of the country, if no marked progress is made.

    Completing a plan to implement new laws for women driving will be one of the issues Saudi may choose to address. I think that will be the simplest area to address as the others are more demanding and include removal of guardianship, removal of travel restrictions, etc.

    I think King Abdulah enjoys very strong popular support He can get this through with a phased plan that includes limited driving for above 30 women during certain hours of the day. Additional phases can be added as the population gets used to the change.

  6. I believe a law will be passed(considering there actually is no law as such prohibiting women from driving) that gives them the right to drive…so the right to drive will be on paper…but I have the feeling women actually driving will not be something that happens too quickly. Its hard to cut those controlling strings from what Ive seen.

    btw I find it ironic that people(men) claim that women are bad drivers etc and cause a country that has no female drivers and yet cars are crashed all over the place and horrific accidents happen on a daily basis…who still gets blamed…why women of course. They are sooo distracting to the male driver you know….sheesh!

  7. I am an American male citizen and resident of Riyadh. I have been coming to KSA for several years. I asked the Chief of the Riyadh Traffic Police two years ago if there were any civil laws that prohibited women from driving in KSA. He advised, “No, there are no laws in KSA that prohibit women from being issued driving licenses, and if properly qualified, he would issue such to a woman. He said however, the issues are cultural only, and governed by Islamic custom and Sharia rule, not that of any civil authority.” Currently, there are more traffic fatalities in Riyadh, per capita, per year, than in any place in the world. This is due to more than 85% of the drivers are males under 30 years of age, who have no respect for traffic laws, regulations, enforcement or penalties for violation of traffic laws. If a person is killed in a traffic collision, the fine is not more than ~US$100K, and this is usually covered by a driver’s auto insurance policy. While I am 100% for equal rights, we must all remember that KSA is not the USA or Europe. Expats have a choice to abide by local laws, or leave the country. If the Saudi population wants to change women’s rights, they must be much stronger in their desire, and promote change in an orderly manner, without reckless abandon and trying to create change by breaking existing customs and driving without being permitted to legally do so under all KSA customs and regulations.

  8. I’m glad that most of you are more optimistic than me on the subject of when rather than if women will drive!

    About 2 months ago Al Ekhbariyah had a very interesting and illuminating documentary on driving and traffic fatalities in the Kingdom. It was real eye-opener for sure.

  9. I agree with WHS. I would also suggest that the transition to women driving would proceed quicker and smoother if their MEN would join them in demanding that right on their behalf. Again, it’s a cultural thing.

    Look at King Faisal’s strategy for educating girls, and for bringing TV into the Kingdom. He did it with respect to the prevailing attitudes at the time.

  10. Perhaps the men fear repercussions similar to what happened in 1991?

  11. Repercussions are for women, not men. These women of the 1991 affair simply did not have enough support from men of certain standing, I think.

    And Allah knows best.

  12. Are Saudi Arabians (the general public) aware that women drive inside the ARAMCO compound? If so, what is the reaction or attitude toward this?

  13. Hi Daniel,

    Yes; it is well known that inside LARGE Western compounds women are allowed to drive and my understanding is that is overall acknowledged (whether or not fully accepted is debatable).

  14. Saudi women also drive in those compounds, not just Western women. In fact, until the mid-ninties, women could get a real Saudi driver’s license in the Aramco compound – they’re quite a collector’s item. Then one day a Saudi lady showed up and demanded one too. No more licenses for ladies after that. Western and Saudi ladies still drove in Camp though. It was a bit disconcerting to a see a lady with several veils behind the wheel, however.

  15. I just learned that Reuters chose to pick up this piece:

  16. It’s November and I’m hearing more and more rumours, now that I’m here, that women are going to be allowed to drive soon. “December”, “early next year, January”, or “soon”. Is there any basis for these rumours because I’m tired of not wanting to get up in the morning because going to do anything (including shopping) is such a pain in the arse. I’m tempted to get a motorcycle and helmet and drive anyway. :o)

  17. Andrea, I do not want to disappoint you but do not hold your breadth. There have been such rumors since prior to 1990. Now people say that since King Abdullah is in power and more open-minded (there’s that word again that causes controversy) that women will drive in his time. Let’s hope but in the meantime don’t do anything rash!!

    I understand on the frustrations of not being able to drive at least in a practical sense. Earlier this week my husband needed medical attention and we had to wait 40 minutes for a limo to arrive since I cannot drive him to the doctor’s myself. c’est la vie fi al memlika.

  18. It’s funny. During my orientation to my new job one presenter, an american male, told the women that we should consider ourselves lucky we can’t drive. I almost (almost) spoke up (in front of 100 people)…. so.. we just get to be the helpless dead victims forced to sit in the back seat of taxis with no seatbelts, with NO control over the car, while crazy people play bumber-cars with our lives?! I don’t think so. We’re not lucky. We’re oppressed.

    We’d probably be the only ones on the road who don’t drive like idiots.

  19. I can understand your point of view Andrea yet at the same time I am relieved I do not drive here. In some circumstances such as emergencies, yes, I wish I had that choice but daily…I’d rather depend on a reliable driver.

  20. not driving is a this country should have FIXED years ago. Truth be told, I find myself unable to get out of bed until noon (like today) even though I’m a 5 am morning person, because I know that I can’t get in my car and go for coffee and a leisurely stroll through a cool morning farmers market.

    I have to put on a shroud, call a dirty taxi who won’t show up until 10 when it’s too hot, go to a supermarket, and pray that prayer time or a slow and inconvenient checker don’t make me miss my taxi (who usually drives away after a 5 minute wait), and then come home to my women only cell block where I’m not allowed NORMAL social interaction, to sit on the couch or sleep until saturday work time.

    this country is backwards and depressing and very likely to go back to the stone age if it runs out of oil..or filipinos and indians. and yet it doesn’t care (not surprising), thinks it’s superior (what a joke), and is completely unaware that none of what it has was earned by the local population.

  21. I understand that having the CHOICE is important. Maybe I’ve been in KSA and other countries for too long where having a driver is the norm. I prefer the conveniences of a driver and particularly so here in KSA where not only the driving is chaotic but there are also a lack of sufficient parking everywhere one goes which also needs to be factored in too.

  22. I’m a 28 year old South African with 2 kids.I’ve been driving for 10 years.When my husband told me women don’t drive in Saudi I just thought He was joking,up until I came here.Well I just can’t live like this that is why my bags are packed as I’m writing this.What I can say is that if Saudi women wants to drive,they can.They need to fight for their freedom,no one else will do it fo them,not their men,since they want to control every move they make.I’ts bad the way things are for women in this place.Saudi women will die before they expirience living.Well as for me my husband can follow us,but life is way too short to be in this prison.

  23. Gugu – welcome and thanks for sharing. i am sorry to hear that your experience in Saudi Arabia has not been all positive. It is true in regards to expats who come here, the Kingdom is not for everyone.

    Some Saudi women are very content with their lives as they know it and others may likely be the agents of change for Saudi Arabia.

  24. […] professional photographer and psychotherapist. She also gained notoriety as being one of the women who dared to drive on the streets of Riyadh in […]

  25. […] soldiers in their uniform and in some cases in their official vehicles.  As a result a group of courageous women from Riyadh decided to test the waters and take to the streets.  Sadly, the timing was not right and the women […]

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