Women Driving in Saudi Arabia: 1990 — Are We Still There?

Saudi women driving

On 06 November 1990,  Saudi women took to the streets of Riyadh during the first gulf war in their attempt for emancipation and to achieve additional rights.  47 Saudi women took to the streets of Riyadh protesting the laws which prohibited them from the right to drive.  Sadly, in retrospect, little forward movement or progression resulted from the actions of the 47 maverick trail blazers.  Instead some were arrested and most of them had their passports confiscated.  A few were ordered to close down successful businesses they had at the time.  The families and especially husbands and fathers were impacted as well.  They were publicly chastised and presented as unable to control the women in their family. 


Women driving in the Kingdom has hit the news again in the Kingdom and stories on this subject are being picked up and posted outside of the Kingdom as well.  Human rights activities, Wajeha Al-Huwaider filmed and posted a video of herself driving along the desert and isolated streets of a small village and then posted this video up on youtube.  (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=54pRJkJ6B6E)    Her reason was to make a statement during the international Women’s Day that the women in Saudi Arabia and their rights and quests for further independence is not over.  There are some in the Kingdom debating on whether her actions have instead set back rights for women.


It is kind of sad and ironic when you look at it.  Here we are, 18, I repeat, 18 years later and there has yet to be real forward progress on the issue of women driving in the Kingdom.  If one reads the various Saudi papers there will always be ongoing articles indicating that the time is very near for women to be able to drive in the Kingdom.  If one does a search for Saudi women and driving there will be hundreds upon hundreds of hits over the years since 1990 – EIGHTEEN YEARS AGO.


Prohibition of women driving is not Islamic.  It is a Saudi cultural phenomenon.  In fact, I am not even aware of how the prohibition of women not being able to drive got started.  One can provide many valid arguments why they should be able to drive and some other reasons (I’m not saying necessarily valid) why they should not drive.


Most Saudi families are larger than the average western family and usually have a number of females.  When you think in practical terms and not even the “luxury, nice to have category” females need to be driven to school, to work, to appointments such as the doctor.  If there is not a husband, father, brother or uncle around who is able to drive them, then they must rely on the services of an unknown driver or taxi.  Think about it, when one engages a driver from abroad, this person is an unknown entity to whom precious female lives are being entrusted.  And what about in the case of an emergency?  What if the father or husband has a heart attack or seriously injured and needs immediate care?  Most families are reluctant to call an ambulance (that’s subject of a separate post I wrote if you want to learn why not).  Should a woman of driving age just sit by helplessly while her loving family member perishes because she is prohibited by law from taking him to the nearest place for medical care?


One will read of various proposals about “when” women drive in the Kingdom.  Some proposals state the woman must be over 35 years of age.  Others will state there will be restricted hours based on school and work schedules.  One far-fetched proposal even stated there would be “women only” roads. 


Some women do drive in Saudi Arabia and I’m not referring just to Wajeha Al-Huwaider or the 47 mavericks of 1990.  One will see many cars on the streets of Riyadh at night where even the dashboard window is so darkened it is impossible to see who is driving.  In some of these vehicles, it will be a Saudi woman behind the wheel.  In other cases, such as described in the “Girls of Riyadh” a Saudi woman will simply dress up as a young Saudi man and go “cruising” on Olaya and Tahlia Street with some of her friends.

  I think one Saudi man summed it up well when he observed Wajeha’s video on youtube by simply commenting “Are we still there?”

27 Responses

  1. Women only roads? I cannot even begin to fathom the logistics of creating those. Why all the fear? Are some men afraid these women will love this taste of “independence” and demand more rights? Or are they afraid these women will find ways to secretly rendevous with men? I just don’t get it and you’re right….this ban on driving is cultural and NOT based on Islam.

    Time to move ahead with this and other women’s right issues in Saudia!

  2. This is one of the big conumdrum’s in the Kingdom…the issue of women driving. There are so many sensitivities associated with it and for various reasons. Like you said Marianna, fear of independence, fear of co-mingling of the sexes, fear of creating strife and conflict among conservatives and liberals. And this is not a new issue at all….the subject was even broached prior to 1990.

  3. I second that.

    I do not see the logic behind women not driving yet being in cars with strange men. And it is known that the sahabiyat rode on camels (their means of transportation at the time of course) who today are replaced with cars. So yes it is surely cultural, and I hope that the law is obeyed for their own good while at the same time, shall I say, creating other “legal” avenues for their rights to be granted.

  4. Women only roads is a very ghood iedea. Statistics in Europe prove that women are much safer drivers as men. So: if safety is the issue, (and I’ve also read that a woman behind the wheel will prove too much for the male drivers: they will be so increadably distracted, that more accidents are feared) It’s very simple: turn everything about. Men are prohibited from driving, women are allowed to drive. 😀
    Yep, you get a great feeling of ”independence” while driving a car! I love it! Of course I usually have to go somewhere, but I could go to Paris if I liked! Me, my car, a tank full of diesel, music, a free highway at night… Heaven!

    And I’m not even mentioning the normal use one has for a car. Or in times of need, or when somebody is injured!

  5. Yeah, dalioness: I was just thinking about that; women ”drove” camels and horses! If I lived in Riad I’d have a horse in the backyard to do my shopping.
    (let’s be honest: I’d have on anyway)
    A car is nothing but a mechanical horse. I have no doubt that this prohibition is only in place because some people don’t want women out anyway. And live has changed; there are no markets anymore, you have to go somewhere in a car to get your shopping done.

  6. LOL! Good humor! The problem is, where will you “park” your horse to avoid towing? Hehe.

    I’m just not so sure as to “what” exactly the reason is for this prohibition. I mean, cultural aspects sometimes just don’t have a reason why they are what they are. At least where I come from, heh. Women in Saudi are out anyway.

    You know what? How about if women start riding horses and camels? Technically, they wouldn’t be “driving”!!!

  7. It was explained to me that part of the cultural perceptions of women driving have to do with face. For example, when vehicles started being introduced in the Kingdom it was greater stature for a man to have a driver. Therefore this perpetuated the belief women should not be behind the wheel. hmmm…sounds like more trite excuses to me!

  8. I agree that there doesn’t seem to be any directly religious reasons for this prohibition, and I understand why people are agitating for reform on this issue, but civil disobedience isn’t ‘Islamic’. Aren’t there better ways people can object to these laws, without flouting them?
    🙂 I’m of the opinion that all Arabs (male and female) should be prohibited from driving!

  9. Sorry- grammar.

  10. ” I’m of the opinion that all Arabs (male and female) should be prohibited from driving!”

    I will report you to the authorities!!!

  11. Hah! Now we have a point upon which WM and I can agree. Having been all over the Middle East I can certainly agree with his statement. The only thing that comes close is driving in Paris, and that is still a far ways off.

    Of course my wife would be the one Arab exception to this rule. Well, having driven with her, I guess she should be included too! LOL!

  12. Bear in mind, I say that as someone born to Arab parents.

    If by some glorious yet unforseen event I was installed as ruler of the world ( 😉 ), my first deed would be to enact road laws and to enforce them brutally. When I visit my relatives, I find that their cars don’t have seatbealts, wing mirrors are missing etc. It’s actually funny; when they plan a journey they wonder aloud beforehand whether their car can make it up hills- you’d think they were taking about some lame horse.

    And that’s why I should be President.

  13. Oh my! Women driving! NO!

    Look, this all comes down to S-E-X, plain and simple. Men seem to think that if women are free here….really free… to drive themselves anywhere, then they’ll be doing the same things that men are doing in this country………..as in cruising just for fun. How will the men be able to keep tabs on their sisters, mothers, aunties, if they can’t call up the ‘driver’ to know where they are at any given time?

    The funniest thing I’ve heard about driving over here is that they were thinking of allowing women —over the age of 45— to drive to work as a start.

    Hello guys….get with the program!… Women these days peak at 45 and men at 25….(or so I’ve read) Don’t you guys think that it’s also probably one of the main reasons why Prophet Mohammed, PBUH, only needed ONE wife when he married Khadijja?

  14. Yes, it seems that it’s all about control of the female and nothing else.

  15. ‘Islamic Feminism’ is an interesting phenomenon, and a derivative one. It seems to be changing, ‘maturing’, mutating- rather than dismiss tradition with silly apologetics they have begun to realise that there IS a problem. Wadud’s recent book (2006) points out that she is faced with a religious impasse; is ‘Islamic feminism’ possible in light of the Qur’an? I’m interested in the fact that so many Muslimahs feel obliged to defer to ‘feminism’ at all. ‘Why?’ is the question I ask. I wish there were more deference to history, to precedent. I think the whole project is ill-conceived, disingenuous and self-contradictory; the work of those who set out to ‘prove’ their a priori assumptions about gender norms. And what is the origin of these assumptions? Ideas don’t appear out of thin air, they have a history that can be traced.

  16. I am with WM on this one as well. It is Friday, is a miracle at hand?

    Anyway, the interests of the women in the Islamic world is ill-served by attatching themselves to a label like “Feminism” and all the history that comes with it, although it might be interesting to see women burning their bras in Cairo and Riyadh.

    The Qur’an provides more than enough protection for women’s rights, what needs to happen is going back to this source to look where the deviation has been made that has seen the plight of women in the Muslim world become the way it is.

    Most of what “feminists” would point to as injustice has no basis in Islamic law or scriptuures, rather most of these issues are cultural based and fly in the face of Islam.

  17. I don’t think they would necessarily burn their bras in Riyadh but maybe the abayas….

  18. Yes, Carol, because even if they burned their bras…the abayya would be there to ‘cover up’ the evidence! : )

  19. Oh, we are all in agreement!!!!! I get all warm and fuzzy feeling-like!

    We now know Omar’s true goal: World Domination! He’s not studying somewhere in London; He’s in some underground hide-out, sending out his goons, stroking a white furry cat!

    Stop using the word ”feminism” just call it Women’s Islamic Rights!

    I never got this bra-burning; I seriously need mine! I bet those rayon abayas would make agreat bon-fire though! 😀

  20. I think for the most part, women driving has gained its sensitivity and exaggeration due to both parties: conservatives and liberals fighting over it. You’d think the issue now is women driving, but the truth is, it is the symbole of which party is going to over power the other and win. If women drive, then the conservatives will lose their power over society.

    I think the gov’t made a great mistake by delaying the approval for over 20 years. Now with so much of a build up between ideologies in Saudi as liberal and conservative, and them turning not into an extreme counteract/reaction to one another instead of well developed schools of philosophy and thought-now any immediate preferance given away by the gov’t will put the gov’t in a sensitive spot of taking sides. Whenever the issues is opened again in main stream media, I imagine it is the gov’t touching water to see if it time yet.

    Personally, I’m a strong believer in the sincere intentions of current King Abdulla. I’ve met with him once during National Dialogue finale event, he entered to the ladies’ section with white sport shoes and without head attire. He smiled so kindly and said “I wish I can shake hands with you all, but I’m afraid you’d get angry!” Then he discussed his plan to eventually lower conservative influence around the kingdom.

    I started off my response high spirited and hopeful, yet just as I reached this section a friend next to me was listening to youtube, where a 40 y.o Saudi lady in Jedda was abused verbally and physically by some men for opening her own restaurant, where she served both men and women.

    And we’re talking about driving in the street alone with some of these men!

  21. Carol,

    I’m sure not letting the women drive in Saudia definately keeps alot of the men employed! I often wonder if this could play any part in not letting the women drive. I of course already know the “rediculous” reasons for not letting them drive. God forbid, it may actually be fun for the women to drive, it may give them some sense of freedom and independence,and of course then they would not be relying on their husbands all the time. That may be an underlying issue with these men too. Maybe underneath it all,they’re so insecure about their women and their where-abouts and possibly the feeling of not being “needed”! These are,of course,just stabs in the dark but it does make you often wonder,how something as little as females wanting to drive a car, has caused such a stir with these men!

  22. Aysha, I’m sure you are right. That was a poigniant video, even if I can’t understand arabic.

  23. I believe Aysha wrote the most insightful comment that strikes a chord with all and sums up the issue of women driving well.

    And in response to Tina, another comment I’d like to make is that there are many drivers in the Kingdom who after driving a woman off to work, may in fact use HER car the rest of the day as an impromptu taxi business! I have one friend who remarked she started to notice little stains or perfume smells and other little things in her car and subsequently learned her driver was moonlighting with her car!

  24. I enjoyed your story on the issue of car driving by women in KSA. I also note the optimism you expressed. I want to believe that very soon it will be over. Time is on the side of women on virtually all the issues at stake. Thanks for all those wonderful posts in your blog.

  25. Thank you Hajia and welcome to my blog.

  26. Reblogged this on lydia7777’s Blog.

  27. Reblogged this on lydia7777’s Blog.

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