Inspired by other uprisings in the region known as the Arab Spring, some women in Saudi Arabia are seeking their own social change: access to roadways.
While there is no written law banning women drivers in the oil-rich monarchy, which practices Islamic law, people must obtain local licenses to drive, and they are never issued to women. So women are dependent on taxis, or males related by marriage or blood, to get around.
On Friday, a protest organized via social media called on women to buck the restriction.
“There’s a new spirit coursing through the Arab world, and it has affected Saudi Arabia not to the same degree, but certainly it’s affected young people’s ideas,” Caryle Murphy, GlobalPost’s correspondent in Saudi Arabia, recently told us by phone. And Facebook and Twitter, which have skyrocketed in popularity there, have become organizing tools for the driving protest, she said.
An organization called Women 2 Drive began a Facebook and Twitter campaign to get women behind the wheel on Friday to protest the restriction. The Twitter hash tag #Women2Jail was created to report any arrests during the protest. The sites posted unconfirmed reports that about two dozen women drove and one was arrested.
The sites also highlighted the case of Manal al-Sharif, who posted a video of herself driving in the capital Riyadh on YouTube and was subsequently jailed for a week in May.
Murphy said while the Saudi government did not specify how it would punish the protesters, the Interior Ministry warned women ahead of time not to take to the roads on Friday. Normally, women caught driving are brought to a police station, where their male guardian is called and then must sign a statement saying he won’t let the woman drive again, Murphy explained.
Many men and women — conservatives and secular figures alike — support the idea of driving, she said, but a vocal conservative section of the country’s 26 million people rejects the notion.
“The biggest argument they make is ‘we don’t want to become like a sinful Western society’ … where women become sex objects and leave the family and work,” based on portrayals of women in Western television shows and movies, she said.
Women face other restrictions on their movements in Saudi Arabia. For example, every woman is assigned a male guardian, who can be her father, husband, brother or even son if she is divorced, and his permission is required for her to leave the country, get a job or undergo certain medical procedures, said Murphy.
Saudi Arabia is the only country where women, both Saudi and foreign, cannot drive.
Women have challenged the driving restriction before, to little effect. One of the largest demonstrations was in 1990, when 47 women, inspired by seeing female U.S. soldiers driving, took to the roads around Riyadh.
Some Saudi women do drive in rural areas out of necessity, Murphy added, “but the government turns a blind eye to that.”