On Saturday, women across Saudi Arabia will again take to the streets – in cars – to protest the nation’s de facto ban on women driving. Already, many videos and photos have surfaced online of Saudi women driving in the lead up to the nation-wide protest. Building on the groundwork of past driving protests, this event was organized by an anonymous group of Saudi activists who launched an online campaign against the ban earlier this year. A petition on the group’s website, which has over 16,000 signatures, states: “There is no justification for the Saudi government to prohibit adult women citizens who are capable of driving cars from doing so.”
Saudi Arabia remains the only country in the world that does not allow women to drive. It also has a sorry track record on women’s rights overall – ranking at or near the bottom in many international surveys. Since the Arab uprisings of 2011, however, the Saudi government has made some concessions to women – perhaps just to keep an increasingly influential interest group quiet – but actions that are nonetheless encouraging.
Saudi women’s participation in the 2012 Olympics was a small step forward, as was the recent declaration that girls in private schools can play sports. Saudi women are also now allowed to ride motorbikes and bicycles for recreational purposes. More promising, King Abdullah recently named thirty women to his appointed advisory council and has announced that women will be allowed to participate in the 2015 municipal elections. Abdullah also fired one of his most religiously conservative advisers last year, despite outcry from Islamist factions. To be sure, religion will continue to drive social policy in the kingdom, but the strains of maintaining the Saudi system of gender apartheid are growing by the day.
There is also evidence that cultural attitudes toward women drivers are changing in the kingdom. Eman al-Nafjan, a popular Saudi blogger who tweets as @Saudiwoman, is one of the most prominent activists urging Saudi women to upload videos of themselves driving and to get behind the wheel en masse on October 26. Last week, she was arrested in Riyadh while filming another woman driving — sparking fears that the government would crack down on women defying the ban. When taken to the police station, however, al-Nafjan reported that law enforcement officials were “smiling and easygoing, and their attitude was very positive.” Furthermore, several videos of Saudi women driving show male drivers waving and giving thumbs up, encouraging women to share the road with them. There are also videos of men teaching their daughters, sisters, and mothers how to drive. One young Saudi woman studying in the United States recently sent me a music video she made to encourage her compatriots on Saturday. And let’s not forget the economic argument for allowing women to drive: the kingdom imports some half a million workers to drive women around, who send billions of dollars in remittances out of the country every year. The prominent investor and royal family member Prince Alwaleed bin Talal has been tweeting his support for women driving based on that economic argument.
Of course, resistance to women driving remains strong. Earlier this year, one cleric warned that allowing women to drive would damage their ovaries (a sign of desperation, perhaps). Today, approximately one hundred and fifty religious leaders protested outside the king’s palace, claiming that women should be forbidden from driving and that the United States was responsible for the protest against the ban. A group of women have organized against the driving movement as well, claiming that allowing women to drive would disrupt public order and take women away from their families. Last time there was an organized protest of the ban, in June 2011, only thirty to fifty women showed up – not quite the mass rally that some had hoped would emerge. It remains to be seen how many will show on Saturday; no doubt, many women will likely be discouraged by the Saudi government’s recent warning that law enforcement will use force to put down the protest.
Until there is clearly significant public support for women driving, I don’t think the risk-averse Saudi government is going to make any grand gesture to pronounce the ban officially dead. But that day is coming, and eventually, the driving ban – like other restrictions on women – will break under the weight of its own contradictions.