In November 1990, in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, 47 Saudi women protested against an unofficial and unwritten but nevertheless strictly enforced injunction against what in all other countries in the world was then and remains a matter of course. Their act of protest: they drove cars around the city in defiance of Sharia rules disallowing women—both Saudi and foreign—from driving.
The Los Angeles Times summed up what happened to the protestors: “[They] were vilified by thousands of “Mutawaeen,” the Saudi religious police tasked with applying the country’s harsh interpretation of Sharia, or Islamic law. Many lost their friends, jobs and even their passports. For years later, their detainment and harassment by authorities became a matter of routine.”
For a while, this response discouraged more protests. In 2007, however, Wajeha Al-Huwaider, a Saudi writer and activist petitioned King Abdullah to end the ban on women drivers. She collected supporting signatures both in public areas and via the Internet, as media reports say, “despite intimidation and the frequent blocking of her e-mail address.”
In 2008, a video of Ms. Al-Huwaider driving in the eastern provinces of Saudi Arabia was posted on YouTube garnering international media attention. Then, in June 2011, dozens of Saudi women began campaigning against the ban by posting videos of themselves driving to emphasize the gap between the image Saudi Arabia portrays to the outside world and the reality where women cannot “travel, work, marry, get divorced, gain admittance to a public hospital or live independently without permission from a mahram, or male guardian.”
Before his death in 2015, King Abdullah had decreed many reforms that expanded women’s rights. However, his successor, King Salman bin Abdulaziz, on the evening of September 26, 2017 decreed that women in the kingdom may legally obtain drivers’ licences, and that a ministerial body will be formed to implement the order by June 2018. The question of whether this decree also removes the need for male guardian permission remains unclear given it is not expressly addressed in the text of the decree.
Advocates have responded with a range of commentary. In The Guardian newspaper, Madawi al-Rasheed, a Saudi Arabian professor of social anthropology, currently Visiting Professor at the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics and Political Science wrote: “While many women will no doubt benefit from driving to work and taking children to school, the decision must be assessed in the context of an absolute monarchy championing women’s causes while only last week it detained more than 30 professionals, clerics, and activists for no reason other than to spread terror and intimidate. … Allowing women to obtain a driving licence is little more than a public relations stunt …”
Surveys of more conservative Saudi women, albeit taken a few years ago when such change remained wholly hypothetical, indicate fear that such insertion of Western values into Saudi life will be destabilizing and detrimental.