Saudi Women Defy Authority, Seize the Driver’s Seat (Updated)

A mass protest is meant to bring change to a backward, sandy, oil-rich American ally; Saudi Arabia — it’s time to let go

Last Updated: July 10, 2014 @ 8:32 PM

Saturday update:

About 60 women defied Saudi authorities and got behind the wheel of their own cars on Saturday, according to activists in the country.

Saudi professor and campaigner Aziza Youssef said the group has received 13 videos and another 50 phone messages from women showing or claiming they had driven. She said they have no way to verify the messages, the AP reported. Apparently nobody was arrested.

May Al Sawyan, a 32 year-old mother of two and an economic researcher, told The Associated Press that she drove from her home in Riyadh to the grocery store and back.

Like other female drivers defying the ban in Saudi Arabia, Al Sawyan said she has obtained a driver’s license from abroad.

“I am very happy and proud that there was no reaction against me,” she said. “There were some cars that drove by. They were surprised, but it was just a glance. It is fine … They are not used to seeing women driving here.


Saudi women are planning to seize the right to drive in a mass protest on Saturday in which they will challenge their government by getting behind the wheel of their own cars.

Just writing that seems a little absurd.

It can get tiring trying to chronicle all the basic rights women keep having to fight for — all over the world. I’m appalled that Saudi women can’t drive and that they are going to have to risk jail (yes, jail!) to assert their desire to be mobile without having to depend on a human — any human — with a penis.

They are already posting videos. Above is one from 2011 of Manal al-Sharif, one of the country’s leading activists and an organizer of Saturday’s campaign, defiantly behind the wheel. And here’s 20 seconds of a veiled young woman driving her car, giggling and grinning ear to ear:

But that’s where we’re at. (Meanwhile, closer to home, women in Texas are losing the right to have an abortion. But that’s another story. I’m sticking in California, thank you very much.)

Saudi Arabia is one of America’s biggest allies. It doesn’t even have a formal  law against women driving. It’s just considered bad form, bad for their ovaries (seriously, something about the angle of the seat belts), bad for …. OK, just bad. In fact, most of the subjugation of women in the Middle East and south Asia — Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan — has more to do with cultural norms than any religious requirement.

Still, the Saudi government sees it as a threat, though this movement has been under way since the ’90s. On Wednesday, the Interior Ministry issued a statement saying it would crack down against anyone who attempts to “disturb public peace” by congregating or marching “under the pretext of an alleged day of female driving.”  (Though activists have repeatedly insisted throughout their campaign that no demonstrations will be held.)

And on Friday, the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat quoted Saudi Interior Ministry spokesman Turki al-Faisal as saying cyber-laws banning political dissent could apply to anyone supporting the women-driving campaign. Conviction can bring up to five-year prison sentences.

You read that right: five years in jail for driving your own car!

The women, I suspect, will show up anyway. The Guardian reported that activists say they have 16,600 signatures on an online petition calling for change. The “October 26 driving for women” group is considered the most extensive social campaign ever seen in Saudi, “where Twitter has millions of users and is used to circulate information about the monarchy and official corruption,” the Guardian says.

“October 26 is a day on which women in Saudi Arabia will say they are serious about driving and that this matter must be resolved,” Activist Manal al-Sharif told the AFP news agency.

Really, it’s about wanting to control women. Saudi Arabia — it’s time to let go.