Women in Saudi Arabia protest driving ban: Women drivers practice civil disobedience

While there is no law prohibiting women from driving in Saudi Arabia, it is highly frowned upon. Photo credit: Faisal Al Nasser/Reuters.

While there is no law prohibiting women from driving in Saudi Arabia, it is highly frowned upon. Photo credit: Faisal Al Nasser/Reuters.

On October 26, more than 60 women in Saudi Arabia protested the traditional driving ban the kingdom enforces on women. A fight against the restrictions, which prevent women drivers, has been ongoing, and the latest act of civil disobedience garnered plenty of media attention, but little in the way of police response. Still searching for good research paper topics for a women’s studies class? Read on to learn more about the history of the struggle and the civil disobedience practiced by Saudi women to gain more freedom in a country that restricts women’s rights.

Years of civil disobedience

“During my formative years … I listened to countless conversations where it was decided how it would be impossible for Saudi Arabia to forever bar women from driving,” recalled Mohammed Jamjoom, CNN.com contributor of the October 25, 2013 article “Why Saudi Arabia can’t ban women from driving forever.” Jamjoom continued, “The laws will have to change, they’d say. In five to 10 years, they insisted, women would, no doubt, be allowed to drive. I first heard that refrain 33 years ago, in 1980…. I’ve been hearing it ever since.”

Jamjoom noted there is technically no law against women driving, yet the ultra-conservative segment of the population essentially forbids the behavior, and a woman cannot be issued a driver’s license. The idea that women should not drive comes out of a strict Islamic interpretation called Wahabbism. Conservative leaders of the movement believe that allowing women to drive is against the rules in the Koran and could undermine all of Saudi society.

In Jamjoom’s memories, he recalled women dressing like men to enjoy personal freedoms – such as driving. And he remembered the first large protest, in 1991, when 47 women drove through the streets of the Saudi capital. Dozens of these women were prevented from entering their workplaces, from traveling, or were detained by police.

Manal Al-Sherif goes viral

In 2011, Mana Al-Sherif took up the mantle of civil disobedience, protesting the driving ban by filming herself driving a car. She posted the video online – a refuge for protesters in the kingdom, where the media is censored and public criticism is not allowed. Al-Sherif used social media, including Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, to promote awareness of the struggle women in Saudi Arabia face.

“Families must hire live in drivers to transport women, and those who cannot afford the $300 to $400 a month for a driver must rely on male relatives to drive them to work, school, shopping or the doctor. The ban keeps women isolated and unable to work,” reported Lauren Oates, who covered Al-Sherif’s protest in “Women drive change in Saudi Arabia” in Herizons.

After the video was posted, Al-Sherif spent nine days in jail. In response to Al-Sherif’s incarceration, dozens of women in Saudi Arabia took to the streets, posting videos of themselves driving. But no laws were changed, and the ban continued.

Women’s Driving Campaign

On October 26, 2013, the Women’s Driving Campaign brought the restrictions on Saudi women to media attention once again. The women involved in the protest were legal drivers – they had licenses issued in other countries – and they sent in videos and photographs of themselves behind the wheel to campaign organizers.

May Al Sawyan is one of the most vocal protesters from this latest attempt: she drove to the grocery store with a female news reporter in her car. She was prepared to be arrested, but stated in Abdullah Al-Shihri and Aya Batrawy’s Huffington Post coverage of the protest, October 26, 2013 post “60 Saudi women protest driving ban without incident in latest push for easing restrictions in kingdom,” that she was “very happy and proud that there was no reaction against” her. Five women in Riyadh were pulled over by police, but only detained until male guardians arrived to drive them; they were released after signing a pledge that they would not drive again. In Jeddah, however, two women were detained at the police station and released later that evening.

Does the lack of harassment of the women protesters in Riyadh mean that change is coming? Only time will tell. Given the statement from Saudi Arabia’s Interior Ministry that punishment would be meted to demonstrators and women drivers, it seems as though change may still be a long way off.

Have you been involved in a political protest? Tell us in the comments. 

For more good research topics in women’s studies or more information about women in Islam, visit Questia.

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