Driving While Female

June 30, 2011 | Paula Neudorf

Lulu Almana was 5 years old in 1990 when her aunt, Aisha Almana, led a protest against the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia and was swiftly arrested along with 46 other women.

“My dad had to go to the prince for him to release my aunt,” Lulu said. The women were eventually banned from foreign travel for a year and many lost their jobs.

Now, over two decades later, Saudi Arabian women are trying again. In late May, activist Manal al-Sharif posted a video of herself driving on YouTube and was arrested a day later. Though she was imprisoned for 10 days, her earlier call for women to drive on June 17 was heeded. More than 50 women were reported to have taken to the wheel on the appointed day, many of them documenting the occasion on Twitter, YouTube and Facebook. No arrests were made that day, but five women were arrested on June 28, nearly a week and a half later, in Jeddah.

According to Lulu and other Saudi Arabians, the women who drove on June 17 clearly learned from their 1990 predecessors.

Because protest is officially banned in the country, the women who drove were careful not to have meeting places or to drive in groups, and did nothing but run routine errands. “There was no protest,” said Saleh Alamer, a recent U.S. law school graduate who grew up in the kingdom.

“You kind of have to work with the system,” Lulu said.

Saudi Arabia remains the only country in the world where women are barred from driving. They are also barred from voting and lack other basic rights.

“Female Saudis require male guardian approval to do anything,” Abdullah Kadhi, 31, a Saudi-American who grew up in Saudi Arabia, explained. “[You can] have a female surgeon that can operate, but she needs to get a piece of paper to go see a movie.”

To Lulu, being able to drive is just a first step in improving women’s lives in the kingdom. She recently spoke with her aunt, Aisha, about this latest effort. “She’s happy that women aren’t afraid anymore,” Lulu said. “And she’s looking forward to more.”

But will the June 28 arrests stop Saudi women in their tracks?