Forbidden to Drive: A Saudi Woman On Life Inside the Kingdom

A young journalist describes the countless ways Saudi Arabia's regressive laws affect her nation's society, economy and even immigration

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Faisal Al Nasser / Reuters

A woman drives a car in Saudi Arabia October 22, 2013. A conservative Saudi Arabian cleric has said women who drive risk damaging their ovaries and bearing children with clinical problems, countering activists who are trying to end the Islamic kingdom's male-only driving rules. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where women are barred from driving, but debate about the ban, once confined to the private sphere and social media, is increasingly spreading to public forums too.

As most of the world now knows, Saudi Arabia is the only country which still forbids women to legally drive. But honestly, most Saudi women didn’t think to change that until the last decade or so. Growing up in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, in the 1990s, I never thought that we females should drive. It wasn’t that I was conservative; the answer was much simpler: we never talked about it seriously back then. But people are talking about it now.

On Saturday, Oct. 26—coincidentally, my 30th birthday—Saudi women took to the streets in protest, and drove. Early reports showed that dozens of women reported driving in the country throughout the day without incident. This movement could have a profound effect on Saudi society, the economy and even immigration, which are structured to accommodate a system where half the population cannot go anywhere independently.

What’s life like when you can’t drive? Like most middle class Saudis, my family owned multiple cars and hired a full-time driver who would take us to school and work, usually in our own SUV. Many of those drivers came from India, the Philippines, Indonesia and other countries. We had to call the driver in advance on his mobile phone to schedule social events, and often, those drivers lived in separate suites attached to our homes. It was normal.

The lack of mobility was just something that we whined about at first, just like when we complained that our brothers could play ball while we had to help in the kitchen. Nobody really thought to speak up. Although we were happy to not need to worry about car maintenance, we were not pleased with needing to wait for a male adult to move around town.

Brothers, husbands and fathers were not always around to drive the females in their family, especially if they had overlapping schedules on opposite sides of town. Currently, there is still no form of acceptable public transportation available for women today, and the distances between landmarks such as hospitals, stores and schools are not always within close distance to homes. There is no metro system or public bus for females to use and the few trains which run between major cities are too far from residential areas, one would need to be taken there by car. Taxis are becoming more acceptable but are not generally desirable, since the common view is that the expat drivers tend to flirt with their passengers, and the Saudi cab drivers seem to gossip to their friends about the female passenger’s family name.

The often scorching desert temperatures—especially in the abaya, or the long, black cloak which is worn over clothing—prevents females from walking in the streets during the day, and it is still not “respectable” for a girl to walk solo around the block without a male guardian at night, when the temperatures cool somewhat.

To make up for lost business because of the lack of mobility of Saudi women, fast food restaurants and even small corner stores take orders by phone and deliver to females who are stuck at home. If you want to go out but your male guardian is busy and your driver is picking up your sister during rush hour, you are out of luck. That is why drivers rule the streets.

When dozens of women attempted to drive in the early 1990s in Riyadh, it was so foreign to us. Those women were arrested and fired from their jobs. Most of us just laughed and shook our heads. We knew that deep within the desert, Bedouin women would drive and that women would drive in gated communities, but those were very restricted and monitored areas.

In the early millennium, Wajeha al-Huwaider, a journalist and activist, became the face of women trying to drive. She was frequently arrested and was loud and proud about it. Saudi women (and men) seemed either baffled or encouraged by her. Some just were angry at her and several thought she was just annoying.

We associated driving with being outside of Saudi; it was just a rule that we didn’t question at home.

And, looking back, I actually think that having a driver taught us a few valuable lessons. As a teen, my friends and I put our time management skills to work and seamlessly coordinated who would pick up whom on the way to the mall. We expertly calculated drop off locations, based on prayer times (when shops/restaurants would close) and driver availability. We learned how to share.

At 18, I moved abroad for college and got my driver’s license. I liked to drive myself after class. I loved how free it felt to just stop by and get ice cream without needing to double-check with my entire family (in case anyone needed to get picked up on my way home). I was a very cautious driver. I obeyed all signals and did not park in tight spots. I immediately filled-up when my gas tank dipped below full and always got the car checked if I smelled, heard or saw anything abnormal in the car.

Then, the internet took off and people started to use it as a platform to turn our private complaint sessions into public discussions. That’s when we really start to think that we could maybe drive in Saudi, too. In 2011, Manal al-Sharif, a single mother of a young child, used Facebook to start a campaign to urge other Saudi women to get into their cars and drive on June 17. Before that date, a YouTube clip of al-Sharif driving in the main city was posted online, with al-Huwaider sitting in the car with her. While al-Sharif was not stopped while filming that clip, the uploaded footage went viral and she was arrested based on the video. She had to publicly apologize and did not drive during the protest.

Although that campaign did not succeed, it did get plenty of women to either drive or contemplate it. It shook people up and it started conversations. Women seemed ready to take action. Stories about women forced to skip work and children forced to miss school because the driver couldn’t take them were not merely rumors: they happened to us. Another common story was of a lone woman standing at her parked car, holding the car keys and her dying child—as no man was able to come in time to take her to the emergency room. Many of the fathers would leave to work shortly after sunrise, an hour (or several) before children would need to be at school. School buses were private and expensive and not always an option (buses and private vans only operated if a sizable number of kids lived in the same neighborhood/compound and attended the same school).

Many drivers would threaten to quit if they didn’t get annual raises and often would get their way. Unregistered freelance drivers charged as they pleased and did not necessarily have a clean record, which raised several safety issues. The drivers knew that women needed them. In fact, a satirical Arabic-language YouTube clip illustrates this (it offers English subtitles). The female host starts by asking men if they foolishly thought that they were the most important man in the lives of their wives, sisters and mothers. The host’s “shocking” reveal is that they were not—the driver was. The clip then shows the female as she pleads with her lazy driver to take her around town.

Another online Women2Drive campaign also took place on Saturday. This time, word spread fast on Facebook and Twitter. The campaign’s site was blocked in Saudi Arabia, after it collected more than 11,000 signatures of support in just a few days. The site is active abroad. The fact that it was blocked means that people of power are paying attention and not all of the attention has been negative. Current King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has not opposed women driving. But a male Saudi scholar, Sheikh Saleh al-Luhaidan, made waves in late September when he repeatedly said that women should not drive because it would affect fertility in women (among other allegations).

A friend of mine, Maha, started a blog themed around drivers in Saudi, from the female perspective. She is a 31 year-old working professional with an active social life in Jeddah and she started her blog to vent. “I was hoping to get people to share their own ridiculous stories, too. Misery loves company. But now, it’s like a diary. I keep track of what’s going on about this issue, too. I’ve found some support (online), some opposition, but not much. Women vent together all the time. I rarely sit in a gathering where someone doesn’t complain about her driver, or lack of one. I’ve kept my blog in English on purpose. Only English readers and expats read it, so I fly below the radar, so to speak.”

When I asked what the Oct. 26 campaign means to her, she said: “I think it’s mainly to raise awareness and erode taboos. It’s amazing how public opinion has swayed in the past 20 years. There used to be this fear of being labeled a “liberal,” or “radical” or even “heretic” if you voiced that you were pro-women driving. Now, even public, religious figures, like the head of the Hayaa (from the Al Ash-Sheikh family), has admitted on the record that Islam has nothing against women driving.”

Nonetheless, Maha is cautious about joining in this month’s protest. “Honestly, not sure yet. I’ve got to make sure my dad is in town. I have a supportive dad, in case I need to be bailed out.”

Maha also points out that there are security issues even with drivers. “I’ve had times where I felt unsafe (alone with a driver in a car), even as an adult. So most Saudi women still believe they need to ask permission from their father or husband to go out. As a kid, it makes sense—as an adult, no. But patriarchal interpretations of religious texts support this. Ideas like this can only change from within and in time.”

40 comments
XiraArien1
XiraArien1

Not more than 12 hours ago in my local area some gun nuts got together to protest a law on open carry. So they got their unloaded and in some cases non-working guns out and waved signs while wearing them in holsters and on their backs.

Every single person at that protest with a gun was arrested and charged with a felony.

Our own record isn't pretty when it comes to tolerating harmless protests against _OUR_ lifestyle laws. You have no right to complain about theirs.

In fact, S.A. is less of a police state than we are because those people won't be facing real charges that will prevent them from getting jobs for the rest of their lives. An unpracticed woman behind the wheel is also infinitely more dangerous than an unloaded firearm.

matt.crawford88
matt.crawford88

nothing  scares the muslim male more than a sexually mature intelligent woman and her v.a.g.i.n.a.

UleNotknow
UleNotknow

Caption" "A woman drives a car in Saudi Arabia October 22, 2013."

So what's with the mask over your face, lady? Why aren't you defying that idiotic custom too? In for a penny, in for a pound.

JosephBagadoughnutz
JosephBagadoughnutz

Top Ten Signs You're a Christian in Name Only


10 – You vigorously deny the existence of thousands of gods claimed by other religions, but feel outraged when someone denies the existence of yours.


9 – You feel insulted and "dehumanized" when scientists say that people evolved from other life forms, but you have no problem with the Biblical claim that we were created from dirt.


8 – You laugh at polytheists, but you have no problem believing in a Triune God.


7 – Your face turns purple when you hear of the "atrocities" attributed to Al lah, but you don't even flinch when hearing about how God/Jehovah slaughtered all the babies of Egypt in "Exodus" and ordered the elimination of entire ethnic groups in "Joshua" including women, children, and trees!


6 – You laugh at Hindu beliefs that deify humans, and Greek claims about gods sleeping with women, but you have no problem believing that the Holy Spirit impregnated Mary, who then gave birth to a man-god who got killed, came back to life and then ascended into the sky.


5 – You are willing to spend your life looking for little loopholes in the scientifically established age of Earth (few billion years), but you find nothing wrong with believing dates recorded by Bronze Age tribesmen sitting in their tents and guessing that Earth is a few generations old.


4 – You believe that the entire population of this planet with the exception of those who share your beliefs – though excluding those in all rival sects – will spend Eternity in an infinite Hell of Suffering. And yet consider your religion the most "tolerant" and "loving."


3 – While modern science, history, geology, biology, and physics have failed to convince you otherwise, some id iot rolling around on the floor speaking in "tongues" may be all the evidence you need to "prove" Christianity.


2 – You define 0.01% as a "high success rate" when it comes to answered prayers. You consider that to be evidence that prayer works. And you think that the remaining 99.99% FAILURE was simply the will of God.


1 – You actually know a lot less than many atheists and agnostics do about the Bible, catholicism and church history – but still call yourself a Christian

JosephBagadoughnutz
JosephBagadoughnutz

the house of saud, and its kingdom, perpetuated 911, therefore, all arabs must be entered into martyrdom.  mecca and medina will be glass parking lots for wal mart, the lawrence edition.

BillLichtenstein
BillLichtenstein

ya ever see a Jersey woman drive? Just one time and you will be proud of your Saudi brothers. Women should not be able to drive! My guess is insurance rates would be lower if babes stayed and home and cleaned the house for their husbands.

mairbud
mairbud

1989: A young married Saudi couple, living in Michigan while the husband studies English at a local college: he teaches his wife to drive because he is too busy to drive her everywhere.  P.S.- he taught her in Saudi Arabia, out in the dessert where no one could see her.  But it was for HIS convenience!  

Lest anyone forget, the same arguments men use against Saudi women driving were used by American politicians, husbands, doctors, etc, against American women voting, having a job, getting an education , etc. just about 100 years ago!

AghaAta
AghaAta

No one can stop the wheel of Evolution.  Women driving cars is not so difficult as Saudi men changing their thinking; and mind you that, too, will happen.  This is EVOLUTION.

kevin.mckinley68
kevin.mckinley68

Saudi women have been driving for decades.  While stationed there with the Army in the early 90's, I routinely saw women driving pickup trucks and mostly off road vehicles outside urban areas, mostly in the area of raising livestock (goats, camels, etc).  Women (with no men in the truck) would drive their kids and goats all across the desert across the units I worked with and no one (Saudis or Americans) thought twice about it.  The fact that they are driving in urban areas migrating from rural trends only took twenty years to manifest.  Good for them

eetom
eetom

Women in Saudi Arabia started driving at last!  A small step for women but a huge step for human kind.

eetom
eetom

Women in Saudi Arabia are driving.  A small step for women but a huge step for mankind.

arvay
arvay

Useful to contrast the pseudo-nation of Saudi Arabia, us as the personal property of a jumped-up tribal aristocracy put in place by "infidel" Britain and ruling its people with absurd backwardness, with the still-problematic but much more advanced and promising Iranian nation of almost 80 million people. 

http://www.today.com/id/20757597/

Saudi Arabia -- not Iran -- is the leading sponsor of terrorism in the world today. 

From the madrases it finances in Pakistan which trained  poor youths to hate America and kill American soldiers in Afghanistan, to the al Qaeda forces it has sent to Syria -- it remains a source of ignorance and state-sponsored  violence. 

Lest we forget -- the criminals who flew those planes into our Towers were mostly Saudis, as was Osama bin Laden. 

Now they are furious at us because we won't back their Sunni war on the Shia. A conflict that means nothing to us, that we need to stay out of. 

In that war, let the nation with the educated women win.


Alan_Greenback
Alan_Greenback

In ten years Western publications will be encouraging Saudi Arabians to legalize abortion. Why can't they just leave those cultures alone? -- it's none of our business, and never has been. I see that Time, PBS, and the NYT all featured prominent stories on this today.

TengkuMohdZain
TengkuMohdZain

Please come and live in Malaysia if you want to drive your car 24 hours a day. Good luck !

siesmann
siesmann

Brave women!!Should be supported maximally ,fromallovertheworld!!! 

JohnKovacich
JohnKovacich

alot more women would be driving, but they couldnt find a thing to wear

aztecian
aztecian

yeah...cool...give them time.  now they'll be able get into some real fun with the new wheels. 

quatra
quatra

Looking a the pics I'd say women there would really be a safety hazzard driving around almost blindfolded.


SteveGregg
SteveGregg

After the world wide campaign of terror that Saudi Arabia has waged against the world, I have no sympathy for them nor their self-imposed problems, particularly when I consider how they supported and celebrated the mass murder of Americans in the Sep 11 attacks. Saudi Arabia has contributed little to the world and subtracted much. Their society is incapable of reform. The best solution is for Saudi Arabia to fade into oblivion, to disappear from history, and trouble the world no more.

DanielaMarie
DanielaMarie

Very thoughtful and well written. I look forward to reading more articles from this wonderful young author; she is refreshing, well researched and her words touch a place in your soul. I look forward to reading more from her unique point of view and have no doubt that she will become a huge success.. and may your birthday be wonderful and well celebrated in your country and around the world..

AbbasAli
AbbasAli

this is the status of women in saudi - no rights- sorry no human rights.wahabi abdulla wants to compete with the civilized world by building skyscrapers but on the ground level saudi is a medieval country!The irony of the situation is ,God gave them wealth at the expense of their brains!

YomaMa
YomaMa

Funny how you never hear the Government or UN complain about the human rights issues- in this land of evil.  The country that spawned all the terrorists from 9/11- and not a scratch on them.  Whether it be the treatment of women, the raping and marriage of children, or the teaching of their so called religion of peace, tolerance and love- (none of which is true).  How about the fact their city of Mecca is off limits to any non muslims- now thats tolerance and inclusion, they are bashing Russia for their treatment of gays- has anyone seen what happens to gay sin the middle east?  How about the teaching of killing every jew and wiping them off the face of the earth?  This is not a religion it is an evil ideology period.  Sorry but I keep hearing about the extremists and conservative Muslims being a tiny fraction of the 15 billion population- but these vast majority of Muslims- sit and remain silent whether it be terrorism, hatred, intolerance, or anything outside of what that book states.

CrowdsGather
CrowdsGather

These Islamists interpret their religion to suit the culture they want. Does the Koran require women to cover themselves from the top of their heads to the soles of their feet? NO! The culture requires them to do that. Men who feel threatened require them to do that. Men who are aroused by the sight of an uncovered women, are afraid of their feelings and afraid they cannot control themselves do that. Wimps!

mbauman
mbauman

Saudi Arabia is, was and always will be feckless. They contribute absolutely nothing to the world at large, subjugate women, abuse foreign workers and are essentially oil parasites. Without the black gold they would still be wandering around on camels in the desert while beating their 10 or so wives. The world would be a much nicer place without Saudi Arabia. 

PlutoAnimus
PlutoAnimus

" Like most middle class Saudis, my family owned multiple cars and hired a full-time driver who would take us to school and work, usually in our own SUV."

Lady, that ain't middle class; that's wealthy.

 And if you think the authorities are going to allow any social change in Saudi Arabia, you've got another thing coming.

WendyBuckleman
WendyBuckleman

The cleric has a point. Riding in cars create extra lactic acid toxins by vibrating the cells in the body at a high rate; however, driving and being a passenger would have the same problem. Being in cars ages people and should be avoided or limited if possible. Then we could also stop having to buy Saudi Oil and supporting these backwards sexists.

SeriousInvestor4321
SeriousInvestor4321

These are the wonderful people who blew up the World Trade Center and resulted in the fools in our White House and military invading Iraq.  Obama is probably the worst President in American history because of his inability to get things done.  His only accomplishment may be in beginning to distance us from these primitive Neanderthals.  Not much but it's something.  One answer is for the Israelis to find an Arab with a historical claim to the empty quarter where much of the oil is located - and take it to impoverish these dorks.

Rhurazz12
Rhurazz12

It's good that woman are taking a stand against a belief that women are not to do anything unless it's by a man. Must be difficult when the women in that country can't even voice their own opinion about issues that really matter in a woman's life. Doing protests like they're doing is a great step towards changing a man's attitude of dominance and power over a woman.

UleNotknow
UleNotknow

@BillLichtenstein Fine - go ahead and do the shopping yourself. Take your own brats to their soccer game. Changing your mind now, Homer?

RobertRosetta
RobertRosetta

@BillLichtenstein I haven''t been to the Jersey Isle off the coast of France.  It seems pretty sexist that you think women shouldn't drive though.

BlueDuck
BlueDuck

@AghaAta Evolution, of course, is nonsense. At best its a theory in progress. What it has to do with women being allowed to drive cars escapes me.

Alan_Greenback
Alan_Greenback

@CrowdsGather, nah I think what the men are more worried about is that having access to cars will make it much easier for their wives to enjoy trysts while their husband is away fighting Jihad.

DRudolfKing
DRudolfKing

@ItaniMilleni I like how you straight up took a quote out of context, and then even changed the wording to fit your point.  For everyone else, the real quote is:

"The Coke commercial for the Super Bowl is racist, portraying Arabs as backward and foolish Camel Jockeys, and they have no chance to win in the world," Imam Ali Siddiqui, president of the Muslim Institute for Interfaith Studies, said in an email.