Women’s rights in Saudi Arabia are extremely limited compared to the rest of the world due to the strict adherence of Sharia Law and was the only country to not allow women to drive for decades. Some of those in favour of the ban claimed that allowing women to drive would cause prostitution, homosexuality, divorce, and ‘the end of virginity’. These arguments should sound familiar to women across the world as these have been the purported fears every time females demand their rights. In 2018 the driving ban was finally lifted thanks to the long fought campaign by female activists.
The campaign to allow women to drive began in 1990 when 47 women drove in Riyadh as punishment they were imprisoned for one day, had their passports confiscated, and some lost their jobs. This moment started a movement which escalated by the mid-2000s thanks in part to social media and the ability for women to connect with each other.
In 2007 Wajeha al-Huwaider and Fawzua Al-vyyoiuni co-founded the Association for the protection and defence of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia very quickly they received 1,100 signatures petitioning for the right to drive. On International Womens day 2008 al-Huwaider filmed herself driving and uploaded the video to YouTube. The film went viral garnering international media attention. She told the media that she hoped her action would give the movement enough momentum to get the law changed by the following International Women’s day. Unfortunately this did not happen but the desire for rights did not disappear.
In 2011 during the height of the Arab Spring movement Saudi women were inspired to ramp up the movement. A Facebook campaign was started by Manal al-Shariff called ‘Teach me how to drive so I can protect myself’ or Women2Drive which called for woman to begin driving from June 2011 laws be damned. Within weeks the group had received 12,000 messages of support. Al-Huwaider was impressed with the campaign and began working with them and filmed fellow activist al-Shariff driving. This act led to the arrest and imprisonment of al-Shariff for over a week eventually being released on bail after agreeing to answer any other questions the government had, not drive, and not talk to the media.
While she was still imprisoned another woman was arrested for driving with several others doing the same in solidarity. This included Saudi actress Wajnet Rahbini who drove ‘in defiance of a long-standing ban on female driving’ she was detained but released without bail conditions swiftly. A few weeks later on the 17th June around 50 women drove cars throughout towns in Saudi Arabia. Police did not intervene with the protest but that day one woman received the honour of being the first woman to receive a traffic ticket. By the end of 2011 women had begun filing legal motions in non-sharia courts filing their grievances at being denied a driving licence while others continued to defy the ban.
In 2013 male Saudi comedians joined the movement by releasing a YouTube video parodying Bob Marley’s ‘No Woman, No Cry’ as ‘No Woman, No Drive’ which coincided with yet another mass drive on October 27th. The government tried to discourage this drive by banning the group’s website and contacting leaders from the movement telling them not to carry out their plans they ignored this and drove despite the heavy police presence and veiled threats from the government.
In 2017 King Salman released a statement recognising the right for women to drive with plans of issuing licenses starting 24th June 2018. However a month before the new law was set to be implemented Women2Drive campaigners were detained by Saudi authorities. As licences were issued as promised these brave activists remained imprisoned without any legal charges against them or any legal representation. The women have been tortured by authorities who have lashed them and given them electric shocks one woman was hung from the ceiling for hours and several have understandably attempted to take their own lives. The women have been accused of undermining state security and aiding enemies of the state in November 2018 the women were tried at the Specialised Criminal Court which is tasked with sentencing terrorists and human rights activists. While the media celebrates Saudi Arabia finally allowing women to drive applauding the growth of rights those who fought for them are being punished. Governments globally have condemned the inhumane treatment of these incredible women but have refused to take any action against it.