A report published by MEMRI has highlighted that the campaign for Saudi women to drive has been strengthened recently, with an increased amount of Saudi women demanding that they enjoy this basic human right.

Saudi women behind the wheel

Saudi women behind the wheel Photography: Reuters

In most countries around the world, a woman has the freedom to hop into a car and travel wherever she pleases.   She can go to the grocery store, pick up her children from school, and travel to and from work with relative ease, inside the comfort of her car.   If she desires, in most countries, she can even do it with music blasting and her long hair blowing in the wind, with the car window wide open.   Unfortunately, in Saudi Arabia, women are deprived this basic human right enjoyed by women across the globe.    

 In 1990, Saudi Arabia’s Senior Cleric’s Council, the country’s top religious body, issued a fatwa; otherwise known as an Islamic religious edict, declaring that women should not be permitted to drive and women caught doing so should be punished.  Soon after the publication of this fatwa, the Saudi Interior Ministry legally forbade Saudi women from driving.   Women in Saudi Arabia that are caught driving are arrested and/or fined.   Saudi Arabia refuses to issue drivers licenses to women.   Furthermore, drivers licenses that women obtain outside of Saudi Arabia aren’t considered valid within the country.    Ever since then, Saudi women’s rights activists have been protesting against the ban on women driving within the kingdom.   

 In recent times, this campaign has witnessed renewed vigor.  Last September, a number of Saudi women have started a campaign to protest against this overt gender based discrimination.   Eman Al Nafjan, a Saudi women’s rights activist, has launched a campaign under the slogan “Women driving a car, a matter of choice, not coercion.”   According to a report published by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), she posted an online petition that gathered around 12,000 signatures within a week that asserted that no Islamic religious law barred women from driving and that the ban in place in Saudi Arabia is based solely upon local customs.  Videos of women violating the ban within Saudi Arabia have been spread all over the internet. 

 The MEMRI report stated that this new campaign has much support from across Saudi society.  As Al Nafjan has called upon Saudi women to take to the streets behind the wheel of a car, Saudi women’s rights activist Fawzia Al-Bakr tweeted: “I support the campaign for women driving, because driving is a right that they should be allowed to choose.”   These Saudi women’s rights activists also enjoy male support from within the Arabic language media.  Al Arabiya TV director Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rashed wrote in the Saudi daily Al Sharq al Aswat, “The Saudi government sends tens of thousands of women to study at major universities abroad, including Harvard and Cambridge, and then prevents them from driving in the country! There is something wrong with this picture.”  

 Columnist Muhammad Al-Saqa stated in the Saudi daily Al-Iqtisadiyya: “There is clearly some confusion among all the customs, the traditions and the religious directives on this issue. All over the world, Muslim women drive cars, and we must properly consider these matters and not close the door to the many benefits that women driving could bring for fear that something religiously forbidden could occur.”  He continued, “The ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia causes many women to be unemployed because they cannot drive to work or even look for a job. Women driving would be very beneficial to the Saudi family and society, and the state could rid itself of some foreign laborers. Allowing Saudi women to drive is a matter of time, no more and no less.”

 While there is cause to be optimistic that perhaps one day soon Saudi women will enjoy this same human right exercised every day by women across the globe, there is cause to be cautious.  The Saudi government still does not appear to be bending on this issue and numerous articles within the Saudi government-controlled press oppose women driving.   However, in the wake of the Arab Spring protests across the Arab world, it is important to recall that we are living in an era where oppressive dictators have been overthrown.   In Egypt, for example, both Mubarak and Morsi were kicked out of power by the Egyptian masses, who demanded human rights and democratic freedoms.   If the Egyptians could succeed to do that, then maybe there is hope that progressive forces within the Saudi kingdom will one day prevail and Saudi women will enjoy the same freedom of movement that most Israeli women take for granted.