By: Hyacinth Mascarenhas
It’s been more than two years since the last time women in Saudi Arabia campaigned for the right to drive in the conservative kingdom. Once again they are gearing up for a day of action to challenge the kingdom’s ban on female driving but with a unique campaign to mobilize change. On October 26, Saudi women are expected to mobilize to support women’s driving rights by driving cars in the country in what one press report dubbed as the “Saudi women’s spring.” The “crime” is punishable by detention, a fine or in the worst case scenario, imprisonment.
As the third major effort of its kind, the current campaign has already garnered significant support on the internet through an online petition that activists say has attracted more than 16,000 signatures. Despite strong opposition by the clerical establishment, efforts by the “October 26 driving for women” group to publicize the current campaign and the issues has been called one of the best-organized social campaigns seen in Saudi Arabia. Twitter, Facebook and other social media have also been used to get more women drivers on the road, garner support within and outside Saudi Arabia as well as circulate anonymous information about the campaign. The campaign also has an Instagram account for supporters to upload their driving videos, photos or “make a statement through art.”
In addition to support from the Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, who each issues a statement calling for change to the ban, the campaign also received wide-spread support from around the globe including Driving Training Inc in the United States who offered a virtual classroom for women to “experience instruction from their home via computer link up with a live instructor that includes real-time interaction.”
“This is an exciting opportunity for interaction with the beautiful, smart and capable women of Saudi Arabia seeking driver education,” said Susan Walling, owner and primary instructor of Driver Training Inc. “We are hoping to bring a powerful new way to learn safe driving skills in a fun, informative and interactive manner.”
Numerous women have already taken to the streets filming themselves driving around the kingdom and uploading the videos to YouTube with some showing passing male drivers giving them a thumbs-up in support. Many Saudi fathers are even teaching their daughters to drive. “People are positive that things are going to change,” said journalist Abeer al-Mishkhas. “They just hope it will come soon. The government says it is waiting to see if society is becoming more tolerant.”
“We are feeling a more positive environment. There is a general atmosphere of acceptance,” said Hatoon al-Fassi, a Women’s History professor at King Saud University in Riyadh. “The public is positive and the reactions on social media are beautiful.” According to al-Fassi, state newspapers have also published also published articles and opinion pieces almost daily on the debate – a virtually impossible feat just a few years ago. Al-Fassi, who also writes for the state-run daily Al-Riyadh, said she was barred from publishing an article on women’s driving two years ago and was forced to change the wording. This time around, she wrote without a single word changed.
Although there has been significant support for the cause, one possible sign of the impact of the changes is the backlash by conservatives against the driving campaign.
Forcing women to rely on their husbands, brothers, fathers, sons or hired male help to carry out basic errands and travel, this unique restriction on women is not imposed by a specific traffic law, but religious edicts interpreted to mean women are not allowed to operate a vehicle. A spokesperson for the Saudi interior ministry warned women that firm measures may be taken against them if they participate in the campaign on Saturday.
Around 150 clerics and religious scholars rallied outside one of the Saudi king’s palaces on Tuesday protesting against women seeking the right to drive and some accusing the United States of being behind the calls to allow women to drive. Leading Saudi cleric Sheikh Saleh Al-Loheidan also caused a stir when he told Saudi news website sabq.org that a woman driving “could have a negative physiological impact…Medical studies show that it would automatically affect a woman’s ovaries and that it pushed the pelvis upward.”
Several Saudi women supporting the October 26th campaign have also said they received threatening phone calls from men claiming to represent the Interior Ministry warning them not to drive before, on or after Saturday. Last month, 32-year-old Saudi Manal Al Sharif was detained for two weeks after driving and posting a video of herself defying the driving ban on the internet.
Eman Al Nafjan, a female Saudi blogger who also was arrested by police for filming a female driver breaking the ban last month argued that ‘society’ should no longer be an excuse for the ban on women driving. She did, however, acknowledge that patriarchy is a fundamental issue. “If there was one word to describe what it is like to be a Saudi woman, it would be the word patronizing…No matter how long you live, you remain a minor in the eyes of the government,” said Al Nafjan.
Signs of change
Although previous campaigns have fizzled out in the past, there have been a string of firsts for the conservative kingdom since the last driving ban protest which campaigners argue is a sign that public attitudes are changing and could pave the way for a removal of the ban.
Women have been granted the right to vote and run in the 2015 municipal elections. Thirty women who were given seats on Saudi Arabia’s influential Shoura Council – an advisory body to the kingdom and the government – also challenged the driving ban and recommended that the Transport Ministry make preparations to allow women to drive. A powerful ad campaign launched earlier this year resulted in a law against domestic violence in the kingdom. Strides were also made in sports as well when two Saudi female athletes competed in last year’s Olympics – a first for a country that does not provide physical education for girls in public schools and sports centers are almost entirely for men.
Campaigners hope these reforms paired with enormous domestic and international support on the internet and through social media have readied the kingdom for change and will result in big numbers tomorrow when women get behind the wheel again.
Writer Maha al-Aqeel, who is also planning to take her Mazda out for a spin tomorrow sees the issue as the “thin end of a wedge of reform in Saudi Arabia.”
“Driving is such a visible and symbolic thing,” said al-Aqeel. “It’s not like women on the shura council – you cannot see that and you cannot see advances for women in the workplace. Many conservatives feel that if women get the right to drive then that’s it, the last bastion of male control will fall. I think it should lead to other changes. That’s why those who oppose it are so vehement. And that’s why the government is treading so carefully. It does not want to cause a big uproar.”
Here are some interesting tweets we found for and against the campaign: