Saudi women take to the road

October 26, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Women in Saudi Arabia stood up to authorities Saturday by breaking a ban on driving. The rule stems from conservative religious customs and isn't written in law -- but that hasn't stopped police from arresting women who get behind the wheel.

HARI SREENIVASAN: There were acts of defiance against authorities in Saudi Arabia today. Women pushed back against a longstanding ban on driving, and then posted videos of it online. It’s the latest challenge to religious leaders by women seeking greater freedoms at home and at work, and seeking new ways to express themselves. Currently there’s even a movie in U.S. theaters that shows how times are changing in Saudi Arabia.

This is Wadjda. The first feature film made in Saudi Arabia and the first directed by a woman. The movie is about a young teen who wants nothing more than to ride a bike, but isn’t allowed to because of religious norms. Though it’s fiction, the film also shows the second class status of Saudi women in real life: the need for approval from their husbands or male guardians before working and a man’s right to more than one wife. And then there is the ban on women driving. But just as Wadjda rebels against traditions limiting what she can do, now Saudi women are challenging the old ways.

Dr Madeha Al Ajroush who studied in the United States for several years, spoke to the Newshour via Skype. She recently posted her own driving video and she’s been fighting for the right to drive for more than 20 years.

MADEHA AL AJROUSH: I actually drove three times. First time is 1990. And the second time is 2011. The first two times I got detained, coupled with losing my job.

HARI SREENIVASAN: During the first driving campaign in the 1990s, 47 women who drove in the capital city of Riyadh were arrested. They were denounced in hundreds of mosques… labeled women out to destroy Saudi society.

MADEHA AL AJROUSH: in 1990 i was very scared, we had to drive within a group, we didn’t know what was going to happen to us, we felt much more vulnerable, 2013, yes, a little fear, but I know that the support system is very large. Saudi Arabia has to change and I don’t think it’s a choice. It isn’t. We are part of this global world, we’re part of this global economy, we no longer can keep 50% of our society handicapped.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Al Ajroush shown in this video shot by another woman says the current campaign is not just a fight for equal rights. The right to drive, she says, is a matter of practicality.

MADEHA AL AJROUSH: You’re completely dependent, 24/7 if an emergency happens in the house, you can’t pick up and leave. My driver is my bloodline. If my husband is not available and most likely he’s not, he’s got his own stuff to do. Then I can’t go to work, I can’t take my daughter to the hospital, I can’t go for an emergency, I’m completely stuck.

HARI SREENIVASAN: There’s been a backlash. One cleric argued on Saudi television last month that driving actually poses health risks to women.

SALEH BIN SAAD AL-LOHAIDAN, SAUDI CLERIC: When a woman drives a car her mind is preoccupied and when she sits for a long time her pelvis bounces and this bouncing places pressure on the ovaries.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And as the movement was gaining momentum… the driving campaign’s website was blocked. Many suspected that that it was the work of a special religious police force that tries to enforce the country’s conservative customs.

All this has sparked headlines around the world. An online petition calling for a repeal of the driving ban has been signed by more than 16,000 people. And in the cause is gaining support in the streets of Riyadh.

This video shot by another Saudi woman captures men giving women drivers a thumbs up…

Others like Aziza Al Yousef, who also spoke to us via Skype, have gotten involved in the driving campaign more recently and say that’s putting more pressure on Saudi leaders to change.

AZIZA AL YOUSEF: I think this time people, you know, there is more acceptance from society and I think there is more people in this campaign than ever and I think it’s going to happen very soon.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But Al Yousef isn’t waiting for permission.

AZIZA AL YOUSEF: It’s not like a one day thing, for me in my mind there is no ban. I do it two or three times a week.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Madeha Al Ajroush  says she’s not stopping anytime soon.

MADEHA AL AJROUSH: Nothing is given to you, you have to fight for it, we know in the United States, the suffragette movement, we know in Europe women had to really struggle, women had to be in prison. No reason would I think that it should be any easier in Saudi Arabia, it isn’t, it’s just a matter of being persistent and just continuing one after the other, one request after the other and right now our main request is really driving.