Middle East / Women's Rights

Taking the Wheel in Saudi Arabia

The image is grainy, sometimes with limited audio—a shaky close-up of a veiled figure, hands on the wheel, gazing intently ahead. The road pans outside the windshield, its motion slowing and tilting with each turn and deceleration. Although the video itself may not show much, what it portrays is groundbreaking: Saudi women at the wheels of their own cars. For a few moments, they are no longer relegated to the backseat.

These videos were posted on Youtube as part of a demonstration against the current ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia. Activists report that on October 26th, 2013, at least 60 women throughout the country defied the ban and took to the roads, with at least 13 uploaded videos to show for it. Although there has been no serious recourse regarding the banned activities depicted in the videos, at least five women were pulled over, made to remain in their vehicles until a male guardian arrived, and then forced to sign a pledge never to drive again.

The women drove to demonstrate solidarity in their rejection of the ban, an active manifestation of the more than 16,000 signatures collected by the October 26th Campaign in support of its goal: compelling the Saudi Arabian government to allow women to drive. The website’s mission statement declares that “Both Islam and the legal system guarantee the right to freedom of movement for everyone, man or woman,” confronting and debunking two common perceptions of the basis and origin of the oppressive ban. In fact, Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where women are forbidden from driving. This concept, strict and singular as it may be, is not even written law. Instead, it is enforced by the mutaween, a group of voluntary, fundamentalist “moral police” who are commissioned by the Saudi government’s Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice to enforce the country’s strict social codes. As one demonstration participant described in a CNN article, women driving is “not against the law, simply against the current customs of our country.” Indeed, the mutawain have the power to enforce sharia, or Islamic law, as it is defined within Saudi borders, cracking down on infractions such as women wearing the traditional abaya, the consumption of alcohol, and of course, the driving ban. These volunteers are empowered by the Saudi government to uphold and enforce social tradition and conduct to maintain social order.

The October 26th demonstration is not the first time Saudi women have spoken out against the ban. A 1990 demonstration in Riyadh involving women behind the wheel resulted in a half-hour drive which, according to NPR, left the women protestors without access to foreign travel for a year, fired from government jobs and denounced in mosques. Women were heavily punished for their attempt to gain access to a social freedom from which they had always been unofficially excluded. Although the demonstration sent a powerful message, the patronizing dependency on hired drivers, not to mention the financial strain the driving ban places on many families, continues.

This year’s protest is the largest yet, but will it be able to change such a well-established part of the social code of Saudi Arabia? The recent demonstration renews and affirms a hopeful outlook toward driving in Saudi Arabia for two reasons. First, the recent demonstration is further proof of a growing (however subtly) trend in Saudi Arabia toward expanded freedoms. In fact, the demonstration follows the recent passage of legislation banning domestic violence. According to The Independent, this ban will make domestic violence—physical or sexual—a punishable crime for the first time in Saudi Arabia’s history, and mandates investigation and prosecution of alleged abuse. The groundbreaking law speaks to the underlying changes taking place in Saudi society–the growing tending of popular viewpoint towards expansion of freedoms and protection of rights.

In addition, there are more platforms to express grassroots movements, and more people who are ready to listen. The utilization of social media by demonstrators to support their cause is an example of this. This tactic has proven successful in drawing unprecedented attention to social issues, and has had an incredibly powerful presence in uprisings across the Middle East, most notably in Egypt. Social media allows the world to access the Saudi women’s fight against this dictate allows those images to be preserved and accessed forever. From the parody “No Woman, No Drive” created by a Saudi activist and comedian, to the more serious videos of dozens of women behind the wheels of cars, there is reason to believe that driving traditions in Saudi Arabia could be shifting in a new direction.