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    Saudi Arabia

November 7, 2013

Saudi Women Take Their Place in the Driver’s Seat

Saudi-woman-drivingIn Saudi Arabia, a woman’s freedom of movement is very limited. Women are not supposed to leave their houses or their local neighborhood without the permission of their male guardian, and the company of a mahram (close male relative). However, out of necessity most women leave the house alone and often have contact with unrelated men to shop or conduct business.

Women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, although it is often tolerated in rural areas. Saudi Arabia has no written ban on women driving, but Saudi law requires citizens to use a locally issued license while in the country. Such licenses are not issued to women, thus making it effectively illegal for women to drive. Women have been detained or fired from their jobs for driving in the past. Furthermore, most Saudi scholars and religious authorities have strongly opposed letting women drive. Commonly given reasons for the prohibition include:

  1. Driving a car involves uncovering the face.
  2. Driving a car may encourage women to go out of the house more often.
  3. Driving a car may lead to women having interaction with non-mahram males, for example in a traffic accident.
  4. Women driving cars may lead to overcrowding the streets and many young men may be deprived of the opportunity to drive.
  5. Driving would be the first step in an erosion of traditional values, such as gender segregation.

But recently, a few dozen women defied this restrictive social code by getting into their cars and driving. Many posted videos of themselves doing so to spread the word.  In an effort to at least respect traffic laws, the driving campaign restricted itself to women with licenses obtained abroad.

Their movement’s goal is modest and they have gone out of their way to avoid anything that looks like a protest.  The women remain deeply loyal to the 89-year-old King Abdullah, and studiously avoid confrontations with the authorities.

“We don’t want to break any laws,” said Madiha al-Ajroush, 60, a psychologist who has been campaigning for the right to drive since 1990. “This is not a revolution, and it will not be turned into a revolution. We are looking for a normal way of life.  For me to get into my car and do something as small as get myself a cappuccino or something as grand as taking my child to the emergency room.”

Despite strong opposition to letting women drive, time may be on the side of the activists. They believe that the large number of Saudis who study and travel abroad and return with new perspectives on their culture, combined with the kingdom’s youthful population and the tremendous rise of social media will over time make the country more open to change.