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.”